By Dr. Meredith J.C. Warren
Unsurprisingly, I have *thoughts* about Netflix’s The Good Place, human intervention in divine modes of judgement and a little old text called The Testament of Abraham (Some spoilers for season 4).
GIF: Judge Gen from The Good Place giving two thumbs-down gestures.
If you’re not familiar with The Testament of Abraham (TAbr to its friends), you should be. It’s an ancient Jewish text that tells a funny story about Abraham trying to put off Death by using toddler tactics, like asking for just one more glass of water and pretending he has to pee again. Not really but it’s pretty hilarious and you should read it.
One of the procrastination techniques involves Abraham getting an angel to give him a tour of heaven to see the mechanisms of heavenly judgment. Before he sees Heavenly Bureaucracy in all its finest, Abraham gets to try out divine judgy powers and really roasts some people. God freaks out and cancels Take Your Patriarch To Work Day.
Because Abraham has so wildly messed up being judgmental, God shows Abraham how divine judgment actually works, which is a pretty intricate, multi-step process of soul evaluation. There are different judges — folks like Adam and Abel and some other figures depending on which version you read. There are still a Good Place and a Bad Place but the judges weigh more than just the last deed the human did to evaluate each soul. That was Abraham’s mistake — he only paid attention to the human activity he happened to see at the time rather than taking into account an individual’s Points over a lifetime. See where this is going?
Everything is going fine in the Heavenly Bureaucratic System because the Points system — so far — works. But Abraham is alarmed when a soul comes through with equally balanced good and bad deeds. He prays and asks God for leniency in this case, and it works! The soul goes to the Good Place. So he gets his angel guide to join in and they pray for the folks Abraham erroneously roasted earlier in the narrative.
The curious thing is, it takes Abraham’s intervention to shift God into action and undo Abraham’s rash judgment. It takes Abraham’s intervention to press God to give the benefit of the doubt to the evenly-balanced soul. So even though Abraham’s judgment is seriously flawed (like SERIOUSLY), likewise divine judgment requires human intervention to function properly.
I actually wrote about all this in a paper. You can read a pre-publication version here.
So where does The Good Place come in?
Well, in the notion that divine or cosmic judgment relies also on human beings to nudge it in the right direction. We never see God but we do see multiple different kinds of divine agents responsible for different aspects of cosmic judgment, including the Judge, Michael, Shawn, various demons and Janets. We see an elaborate Points system — a cosmic bureaucracy, just like in TAbr.
GIF: Michael and Janet high-five while watching the Points for Eleanor and Tahani
But the Points system isn’t working. It comes to light that no one has been getting into the Good Place for quite some time. First there’s the elaborate experiment to prove that humans can improve, but it still operates within the flawed divine bureaucratic system; it’s rigged. And so the Judge decides, fork it, let’s just hard reset this thing and start from scratch. It takes the intervention of the four humans to try to change and improve the flawed system; the divine agents can’t — or won’t — do it on their own.
This isn’t to say that I think the authors of The Good Place had read TAbr or were influenced by it. Instead, I want to point out that the ideas about humans and mercy and flaws about divine ways of evaluating whether people are good or bad that are presented in The Good Place reflect much older questions that humans have had for a long time. Heck, the series isn’t even the first *comedic* treatment of this theme.
The Good Place isn’t original in reminding its audience that being good takes *work* and not just thinking nice thoughts alone in your room — this is exactly what TAbr, two thousand years earlier, also wants its audience to remember. If you want to take this to a life-right-now place, then I guess you could try to remember that if you believe in a god & believe that god (a) is responsible for judgment and (b) thinks mercy is a value, then that still doesn’t absolve you from working for mercy where you can.
GIF: Eleanor leaving out of a door, looking back and saying ‘Good Person’ with thumbs up.
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Dr. Meredith J.C. Warren is a Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies and Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies; she also edits the SIIBS book series published with Sheffield Phoenix Press, and is the co-editor in chief of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. Her primary research interests include the use of food and the sense of taste in biblical texts, especially in the New Testament and non-canonical literature. Her most recent monograph, Food and Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Literature, identifies and defines a new genre in ancient texts that she terms hierophagy, a specific type of transformational eating where other-worldly things are consumed and which cause the eater to become associated with the heavenly realm. Her first book, My Flesh Is Meat Indeed: A Nonsacramental Reading of John 6:51–58, examined Jesus’ commandment to consume his flesh and blood in the context of fictional accounts of human sacrifice. Her website can be found here.