As Eleanor Shellstrop’s eyes open in the first scene of NBC’s “The Good Place,” she is greeted with assurances that she is okay and everything is going to be fine. Having passed away in a freak shopping cart accident, Eleanor is now, as afterlife agent Michael informs her, in ‘the good place’.
Relieved, Eleanor begins to settle into her new surroundings. But as Michael describes the process by which she was allowed in, she becomes uneasy. “When your time on earth is ended,” Michael explains, “we calculate the total value of your life using our perfectly accurate measuring system.”
From a giant screen, Michael displays for the day’s ‘good place’ newcomers some sample actions and the positive or negative point values associated with them – implying that their every action on earth was counted for or against them. “Only the people with the very highest scores – the true cream of the crop – get to come here,” Michael concludes.
Sure that there’s been a mistake, Eleanor begins to panic. Her life on earth was in no way ‘good’ and she doesn’t deserve to be here!
Of course this show is meant to be a comedy, not a theology documentary, but it does play on our society’s perception of religion. It seems ingrained in our minds that in the end our deeds will be tallied and as long as our ‘positive’ numbers add up, the ‘negatives’ will be overlooked and we’ll earn our ticket into an eternal ‘good place’.
This isn’t a new problem. In chapter 4 of his letter to Romans, the apostle Paul presents his case against this counting mentality. “Now to the one who works,” Paul says, “his wages are not counted as a gift, but as his due.” (Romans 4:4) Since doing ‘good’ requires more effort than doing ‘bad,’ it’s natural to conclude that those who put in the work should earn something in return.
But, using Abraham as an example, Paul points out that God’s counting process only involves one action: faith. “Faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness” (v. 9) because he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” (v. 21) Did you catch that? He was convinced that God was able, not that he was. A counting mentality focuses on myself and what I can do, but faith focuses on what God can do.
Paul sums up his point by saying that, like Abraham, righteousness “will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (v. 24-25) It’s not about a magic moment when you “accept Christ” and “become a Christian” – it’s about a choice to acknowledge that you aren’t able to count up enough points to attain righteousness, but that God is able to do what He has promised and make you righteous by the merit of Jesus alone.
There’s an unexpected twist at the end of the season finale of “The Good Place”. (*SPOILER ALERT!*) After spending the in-between episodes trying to become ‘good’ and avoid being evicted from the good place, Eleanor discovers it’s all a lie – it turns out they’ve been in the bad place the entire time! The whole thing was Michael’s elaborate plan to torture humans in a way they’d never been tortured before.
The most shocked by this revelation is Tahani, a wealthy philanthropist who thought for sure she had earned her way to the good place with her acts of charity and generosity. But what she thought counted for her actually counted against her as all that ‘positive’ was overtaken by a single ‘negative’ – her desire for recognition. In the end, even our best deeds count against us because of the self-focused motivation behind them!
In verses 7 and 8, Paul quotes Psalm 32: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Putting our faith in Jesus means trusting that not a single one of our ‘negative’ actions will be counted against us (nope, not even using “Facebook” as a verb or blowing your nose by pressing one nostril down and exhaling!).
But just because they’re not counted against us, doesn’t mean they’re overlooked.
In Paul’s quotation of Psalm 32, he uses a Greek word we translate as “forgiven” which means to “send away” or “release”.* But in the original Old Testament Hebrew, the word for “forgiven” means to “lift” or “take”.** When we say God has “forgiven” our sin, it doesn’t mean He’s just eliminated the negative or “sent it away” – it means He’s released us by “taking” the debt and counting it against Himself.
Unlike Eleanor Shellstrop, we don’t live in fear that the promise of eternity in Heaven will be taken away from us – because we didn’t earn it or ever deserve it in the first place!