Heaven Without God?: How a Fourth Century Theologian Solves the Dilemma of NBC’s ‘The Good Place’

[WARNING: This contains spoilers for the final episode of NBC’s The Good Place ]

‘Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try’, sang John Lennon. NBC’s hit sitcom The Good Place  tried its own re-write: ‘Imagine there is a heaven, but there’s no God’.

We’re invited to imagine The Good Place  is something very near what is ‘Imagined’ in Lennon’s lyrics: a utopia where all the people are just ‘livin’ for today’.

This utopia is ‘the good place’, or the idyllic afterlife—what we religious folk call ‘heaven’. Yet, more than a story about heaven (and hell), it’s a story about five characters who try to find the path to betterment, truth in morality, and meaning in life.

When the four humans arrive, the good place isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. They quickly realise they’ve been duped by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of ‘the good place’. The big reveal that closes season one: the humans are actually in the bad place masquerading as the good place, a device invented to torture them. The rest of the story is their quest, boosted by the conversion of Michael, to get to the real good place and bring most, or all, of humanity along with them.

As the series winds down, they finally arrive at the good place only to find it is not all it’s cracked up to be—again! They are in the real good place, but the architects are at their wits’ ends trying to find a way to keep everyone happy for eternity. They trick Michael and the others into taking over designing the good place, a task at which they have apparently failed.

The problem in heaven, the humans (plus Michael) quickly realise, is boredom. The good place turns out to be a hedonistic paradise where you can have or do whatever you want, but it turns out just ‘livin’ for today’ is—in the literal sense—mind-numbingly dull. The humans craft what is branded as the most human solution: end eternity. Give people a way out.

The reasoning behind this strategy is simple: what makes our lives so special is the knowledge, usually stuffed somewhere in the back of our minds, that we are one day going to die. As Eleanor (Kristen Bell) puts it, ‘vacations are only special because they come to an end’. Only when we know that time will not go on forever can we find meaning in life and truly live now.

In the final episode—aptly titled ‘When You’re Ready’—the characters decide, after living for however many ‘Jeremy Bearimys’ (a fictitious unit of time in The Good Place ) they choose, when to go through a door which will permanently end their existence. They decide, in other words, when heaven has become fully and finally boring.

The dilemma The Good Place  faces head-on is boredom in eternity.

On the one hand, a permanent end feels  wrong. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, we have a built-in desire to live forever.[1] We are made immortal beings and, in the economy of God, death is an unwelcome but now defeated interruption in our lives, not a final destination. This is illustrated in the final episode, when Chidi (William Jackson Harper) makes the heart-wrenching decision to walk through the door, but his partner Eleanor isn’t ready. It turns out ‘happily ever after’ is a myth and any love gets old if you live long enough. But his decision doesn’t feel  right or in any way satisfying—it feels sad.

On the other hand, the mind-bending concept of ‘forever’ is daunting because at some point there will be nothing new to experience. If ‘variety is the spice of life’ then eternity will inevitably and eventually become bland. However utterly humungous the sheer volume of activities available to humanity may be, eternity is longer.

The dilemma presented in The Good Place  is at least softened by the recognition of God as the architect of heaven in the Christian tradition. Thankfully, the creators of The Good Place  did not design eternity, but an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good, perfectly loving God did. The true ‘architect’ isn’t a fallible creature bumbling his way through attempts to entertain humans, but is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob revealed most fully in Jesus Christ. Heaven is not a hedonistic paradise but rather being in the presence of the end of all good desires.

Nevertheless, a shadow of this dilemma remains even for Christians.

If heaven is being fully and finally in the presence of God, and being fully and finally perfected, then the fear is that existence will at some point become static. To be sure, even such an existence would be more fulfilling than our minds can now imagine, but a largely unchanging eternity  is still an unnerving thought.

If we are honest, most of us have felt this uneasiness about eternity. We know we are made for it, but we aren’t sure we want it. In the end, these will prove to be minor scruples before the face of God, but they are worrisome now because we can’t grasp what eternity will consist of. We literally cannot imagine how an eternal heaven will avoid boredom.

In fact, the question of boredom in heaven is an old one. The third century theologian Origen of Alexandria actually speculated that the first fall of the spirits from heaven was due to boredom. From its humble beginnings, the Christian tradition has tried to make sense of Jesus’s claims about ‘eternity’.

We literally cannot imagine how an eternal heaven will avoid boredom.

Enter Gregory of Nyssa. The fourth century church father from Cappadocia (present day Turkey) was called ‘the Father of Fathers’ by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. He was a defender of the orthodox faith during debates about the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

In one of his more interesting theological moves, Gregory articulated a doctrine of epektasis,[2] a Greek word that means ‘moving ahead’ or ‘making progress’. He references the Apostle Paul, who wrote: ‘this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead…’ (Philippians 3:13). In Greek, ‘straining forward’ is a form of the word epektasis.

Generally, Christians tend to think of the Christian life as a kind of epektasis—a straining forward or moving ahead. Our lives are ones of moral improvement, spiritual growth, and, most importantly, a deepening relationship with God and others. Yet, for many, this epektasis  is temporary and ultimately very earthly—we grow and grow until  we are fully and finally in the presence of God.

However, Gregory extended epektasis  into eternity.[3]

For him, the reason is simple: God is infinite.[4] While many affirm it, few appreciate the implications. It means there is truly no end to God—temporal or spatial limitations are nonsensical in the divine presence.

we never reach the summit of God’s perfection, but are caught up in an endless cycle of having our desires satisfied in God only to find, in that very satisfaction, the desire for more of him.

From this, Gregory reasons that there is no such thing as being fully and finally  in God’s presence. There is always more to God than our finite minds, hearts, souls, and bodies can comprehend, feel, experience, or be in the presence of. He says God desires for us ‘unending growth’ for an ‘ascent into higher things’[5]—or what Jean Daniélou described as ‘a continual discovery of what is new’.[6]

Gregory invites us, then, to imagine a very different picture of heaven. It’s a heaven that is never fully static. It is, rather, eternal growth into God. We are ever receiving more and more of what God is offering. And God, because of his infinite nature, can infinitely give himself to be known and received by us. In a kind of reversal of the Sisyphean myth, we never reach the summit of God’s perfection, but are caught up in an endless cycle of having our desires satisfied in God only to find, in that very satisfaction, the desire for more of him.

Long before Chidi and Eleanor, Gregory faced the possibility of boredom in eternity. His solution was not to focus on the happiness of man, but on the infiniteness of God. With epektasis, he gives us a way to think of heaven in which the problem of boredom is washed away by eternal streams of living water.

The Good Place  offers a vision for heaven that is ultimately unsatisfying because God is not at the center. A more compelling vision is offered in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. In The Last Battle, Jewel the unicorn ‘summed up what everyone was feeling’ as they enter Aslan’s country:

I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in![7]

Gregory puts theological language to Jewel’s proclamation. We will indeed go further up and further into the life of God—for all the Jeremy Bearimys we can imagine and more.

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 136–37.

[2] For a summary of Gregory’s doctrine, and the multiple locations it appears in his corpus, see: Lucas Francisco Mateo-Seco, ‘Epektasis’, in The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, ed. Lucas Francisco Mateo-Seco and Giulio Maspero, trans. Seth Cherney (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 263–68.

[3] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Everett Ferguson and Abraham J. Malherbe, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 113–16.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 113.

[5] Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, trans. Richard A. Norris, Writings from the Greco-Roman World, v. 13 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 265.

[6] Jean Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings (Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 70. See, also, Daniélou’s introduction, especially pp. 56-71, for a summary of Gregory’s epektasis doctrine.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (One Volume) (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2010), 760.

1 Comment

  • Emma Kemp says:

    Really interesting thoughts. It’s funny, I’ve never considered that heaven might be boring. The way I see it, God is infinitely creative and so are we, made in his image. So we will spend eternity creating and therefore there will always be new things to experience.

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