They say that the only certain things in life are death and taxes.
Taxes aside, death - and what comes after it - is a topic of discussion that is present in all cultures and all times. However, the way that modern American culture treats the idea of life after death is something of which to be wary.
The perfect example is the new NBC television show “The Good Place.” The premise of the show is that after death, one’s good deeds and bad deeds are added up and weighed against each other. If you have enough good points, you end up in The Good Place, where life is idyllic and perpetual, the frozen yogurt is always delicious, and you can fly around to your heart’s content.
Sounds cool, right?
But if you don’t have enough good points, you end up in The Bad Place, a land characterized only by a short audio recording of the screams of tortured and terrified souls. In other words, as the show’s protagonist says, “It doesn’t sound awesome.”
This generic non-religious perception of afterlife alternatives is pretty common in American culture. Its patchwork nature is a product of the American melting pot that cherry-picks from philosophies around the world.
Karma is the idea that when you do good things, good things happen to you - and when you do bad things, bad things happen to you. This is an important facet of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Some believe that these rewards or punishments happen immediately, and others think that they accrue over a lifetime.
A paradise-like afterlife is a concept that is present in many religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and even ancient Greek mythology. The idea is that departed souls can be sent to a place where there is a reward for good behavior or following religious instructions. However, this place is only for good people. In some religions, including Judaism, Hinduism, and even Catholicism, wickedness must be expunged before a soul can enter The Good Place, either by repenting, enduring purgatory, or taking another round on Earth to score more good points.
While the concept of The Good Place varies a lot, The Bad Place is nearly universal. People like the idea that if they act good in this life, they should get good things in the next. Or, said another way, we believe bad people should be punished elsewhere - because no one wants to spend an eternity with Hitler.
Since Americans come from all traditions and histories, the lines between these different religious concepts blurred over time, especially for non-believers. We generally know of people who do more good than not - teachers, doctors, and firefighters. We also generally believe in bad people - thieves, rapists, and murderers. And because we believe these people are bad, we believe they should be punished for their badness. This is the foundation for the generic American morality.
However, this politically correct, simplistic dichotomy of The Good Place and The Bad Place is a very dangerous thing.
Because the truth is, there is no such thing as a good person.
When we take a closer look at the Bible, and at human nature, we find that we are all bad people. Romans 3:23 says that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." There is no one on Earth who is completely good, because even allegedly good people make mistakes. In fact, we have a saying about it: “We're only human.”
Additionally, Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death.” Even one single sin results in a punishment of death - a sentence to hell. By that logic, there isn’t anyone good enough to go to The Good Place!
So how do we get to The Good Place at all?
Ephesians 2:8 says, “It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith. This is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift.” There is no way to get out of eternal punishment on our own. The karmic concept of earning enough good points to outweigh the bad really doesn’t work.
Instead, Jesus died the death that we all deserved as bad people. As the Son of God, He was able to rise above the sins of the world and become the perfect sacrifice. He took our punishments upon Himself. With the punishment doled out, and our sins atoned for, we can receive His free gift of love to go to heaven, where we will be reunited with God and live in harmony with Him forever, free of suffering and sin. The only thing that must be done to get to The Good Place is to accept Jesus’ gift, which has already been paid for.
Because good people don’t go to The Good Place. Only saved sinners do.
Worship & Media Director
Riviera Baptist Church