JANUARY 28, 2018
AS A KID attending a strict Catholic school in Indiana, I was not so much afraid of the flames and torture of Hell, but of its permanence. On a library worksheet assigned to me and my fellow first-graders, I listed my greatest fear as “dying and going to Hell,” and I had recurring nightmares in which my sister would be forever cast into the underworld for hiding my library books and throwing tantrums during the Barbie Game. Sometimes I’d wake up with sanctimonious tears dripping down my face, thinking that I’d never get to see her again.
One of the terrors of damnation is that there is no course correcting. Final damnation is, well, final. The punishment outlasts the crime by an unimaginable margin, and no one gets to repent. In Hell, you know you’ve done wrong but you can do nothing about it, forever. In the Divine Comedy, the damned do glean some facts from the Pilgrim here and there, but, as in the case of Farinata, what they do learn only intensifies their suffering. For Dante, as for much of the Christian tradition, Hell is defined by stasis. Satan is characterized by his stillness, kept stagnant in the middle of a frozen lake at the bottom of creation. Sisyphus doesn’t build a pulley or refine his rock-pushing technique. As the Silver Jews put it in their song, “Tennessee”: “The dead do not improve.”
But in Michael Schur’s series The Good Place, the education of the dead drives the plot. Owing to some slip-up in the angelic bureaucracy, an American asshole, Eleanor (played by the infinitely charming Kristen Bell), dies and goes to “the Good Place.” Here, among the cobblestone streets and frozen yogurt shops of the afterlife, she’s paired with her soulmate, Chidi, a Senegalese-born professor of moral philosophy, and with his help she begins her education in what it means to be good. By the end of the first season — in which Eleanor and Chidi encounter Tahani, a celebrity socialite and philanthropist, and Jason, a Jacksonville, Florida, DJ masquerading as a Buddhist monk — we discover that the Good Place is not so good. In fact, these four have been sent to a test version of the Bad Place where, as in Sartre’s No Exit, Hell is other people.
Except it isn’t. Something has gone wrong. Which is to say, right. Eleanor, in her struggle to be good, sees through the ruse. When the four of them are confined to a room where they are to decide which of the two of them will go to the Bad Place, she sees it for the hell it is and calls the demons’ bluff. This punishment fails because she is no longer the Eleanor who first arrived in the Good Place’s lobby. She’s learned. She’s improved.
Even when, in season two, their memories are erased again and again, in true coyote/roadrunner fashion, they persist in their education, and, owing to a kind of demonic rivalry, Chidi gains another student in Michael, the Good Place’s demon architect. The sitcom is the perfect venue through which to examine the afterlife, with its dynamic stasis and eternal return (even Seinfeld resorted to a pseudo-metaphysical solution for its finale). In fact, while Seinfeld and its descendants are essentially comedies of manners about shitty people in which equilibrium is the engine, The Good Place uses its form to play with the trope of stasis. (Making Ted Danson, a sitcom fixture for almost four decades, the perfect Michael.) Like the genre play in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag — a tragedy that thinks it’s a comedy — The Good Place twists its form: a sitcom framing an epic about the journey of the soul. In this way, it’s like its genre-mashing, allegorical forebear, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, though The Good Place is more concerned with questions of ethics and redemption than its psychedelic ancestor. At the heart of the show is a critique of a punitive system, the injustice of divine justice. The stasis of the criminalized is false. The Last Judgment is not necessarily the last word. Given the opportunity, the show posits, the human soul can grow and change long after it is condemned.
This model of the afterlife is not new, not even to the Christian tradition. In his On First Principles, Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185–254 CE) offers a map of existence that fits nicely beside the scheme of The Good Place. Origen of Alexandria was an early Christian theologian who gave his faith a rigorous, systematic treatment borrowed from Hellenistic philosophy, and his contributions to Christian thought are so influential as to be taken as givens (including the literal/allegorical/tropological/anagogical system of reading scripture still used today). For Origen, all created beings began as minds of pure fire. In time, most became distracted and turned from God, and as they did, they cooled and fell away. Some, like demons, fell far. Others, like us, formed husky bodies. A few barely slipped and became angels. In this scheme, Christ is the only mind that didn’t fall away, nobly taking human form to guide others. But what makes Origen’s scheme seem so radical for a Christian thinker is that, unlike in other salvation systems, Origen allows for redemption. A human might improve in this age and in the next become an angel. An angel might do a little better now and in the next age return to the mind’s fiery form. Even a demon might morally upgrade, and appear in the next iteration of existence as a human being. The beauty of Origen’s system is that in the end he believes all minds will return to God. We are all made whole again. No one stays in the Bad Place.
Of course, many of us do not strictly believe in an afterlife of “good places” and “bad places.” But there are good places and bad places here in the land of the living, and how we imagine Heaven and Hell lays the blueprint for earthly reward and punishment.
In Voices From American Prisons (2014), Kaia Stern explores the ways in which Christian faith in the United States continues to shape the deplorable ways in which incarcerated people are treated. Stern, who has worked with imprisoned populations for more than two decades, provides excerpts from six students from the master’s program in ministry at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, whose voices she frames with discussions about the history of ideas behind our carceral system. Obviously, it is no great leap to suggest that the roots of American political life have been influenced by Protestant Christianity. But Stern is interested in the specific theological origins of our country’s “spirit of punishment” (a term borrowed from theologian T. Richard Snyder), and she traces the roots of our present “punishment system” to a specific lineage of Christian thinkers and their notions of evil, sin, and otherness.
Stern begins with ideas forwarded by St. Augustine (354–430 CE), especially his ideas about original sin (a term he coined). For Augustine, original sin was a solution to the problems of theodicy — how we make sense of the existence of evil. Free will is the starting point of evil, and it follows that moral and natural evil are the result of the free choices of rational beings. In the context of penal history, Protestants have tended to emphasize that grace can only be understood in relation to sin, to which punishment is seen as the correct, natural response. The “fall from grace” is, Stern points out, an “enduring subtext in prisons: the people behind bars could not resist temptation — of money, drugs, violence, etc. — and, therefore, they are sinners.” These ideas would serve as a foundation for the Puritan penal system, which (as the witch trials make clear) saw no distinction between secular and sacred authority, thereby fusing the criminal and heretical.
After Augustine, Stern turns to John Calvin (that great reader of Augustine) and his notions of predestination. From Calvinist forebears, America has inherited a dichotomy of saved and sinner, which comes with a feeling of what T. Richard Snyder calls “ontological superiority” that allows for contemporary racism, sexism, and heterosexism. “If not all of creation is the bearer of God’s grace,” Snyder explains, “then it follows that some of creation stands outside the purview of grace, fallen from the image of God and therefore inferior in the order of things.” In our culture, the general public brushes aside large-scale, social problems and leaves redemption and healing to the work of the individual. Those who fail to find redemption are then easily objectified into “non-personhood.” This designation of “non-personhood” was essential to the arguments against the humanity of enslaved people, and nowadays it is most alive within our penal system and the public’s response to criminals, a disproportionate number of which have been Othered from birth by dint of their race.
To be clear, not all is lost for religion here. While these ideas have certainly justified systemic cruelty, this same entanglement of theology and practice also makes room for reform toward a system that recognizes human dignity. For Stern, the role of faith is paradoxical: “[T]he general practice of religion simultaneously saves and damns, heals and harms, frees and yokes.” She continues:
Religious doctrine holds for me both an indictment and an invitation — an indictment of what I consider to be the perversion of particular religious values (when, for example, justice is invoked to sanction cruelty) and an invitation for people of faith to hold religion accountable to itself — to practice the religious values of mercy, radical love, and forgiveness that it preaches.
Earlier this month, the rapper Meek Mill was sentenced to two to four years in prison for popping a wheelie on a motorbike in Manhattan and an altercation at St. Louis Lambert International Airport — a violation of his 12-year parole. In a recent letter to The New York Times, Jay-Z frames Mill’s incarceration within a system very much sustained in the “spirit of punishment.” Mill was 19 when he was convicted, Jay-Z points out, and since serving his sentence has been on probation for his entire adult life, “stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside.” Jay-Z’s portrait of the cultural predestination and eternal damnation of black people is in keeping with the notions of the ontological superiority and non-personhood described by Snyder and Stern. A system of punishment casts those who break the law as eternal criminals, stripping them of the basic rights of citizenship, namely voting and employment. He continues:
What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day. I saw this up close when I was growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of a second chance, probation ends up being a landmine, with a random misstep bringing consequences greater than the crime.
Like Eleanor and Chidi, Mill has been eternally stamped a criminal, even when the facts point otherwise. But in this moment of authoritarian impulse, Stern, The Good Place, and Origen offer different models for envisioning salvation and justice.
“I was dropped into a cave, and you were my flashlight,” Eleanor tells Chidi in the finale of the first season of The Good Place. If Hell is other people, it may be that Heaven is, too. Imagining other afterlives might also allow us to reimagine an earthly justice system that is not punitive, but restorative. Here, healing might be communal, not individual. On earth as it is in Heaven.