How Can We Possibly Be Genuinely Moral With Salvation And Damnation At Stake?

I’ve recently been watching The Good Place, an NBC comedy starring Kristen Bell. It’s a whimsical moral philosophy-soaked comedy about a woman who ends up in the “good afterlife”, even though she knows that she doesn’t deserve to be there. This universe’s afterlife is decidedly non-Christian (one character says that most religions got around 5% of the afterlife right), but there is still a somewhat “damnation” and “salvation” based system where good people go to The Good Place and bad people end up in The Bad Place (a place of fire and torture) when they die.

Two characters in The Good Place, Eleanor, who doesn't deserve to be living in the good afterlife, and her friend Chidi who is a moral philosophy professor trying to help her stay by teaching her ethics.
Two main characters in “The Good Place”, Eleanor (Kristen Bell, right) and her moral philosophy professor friend Chidi (William Jackson Harper, left). Image via Vulture.com

At one part of the show the main character, Eleanor, tries to change her behavior so that she deserves to stay in The Good Place. This universe’s morality is measured by a points-based system where good actions earn you points and bad actions take away points (Telling a woman to “smile” loses you 53.83 points, ending slavery earns you 814,292.09 points). Because Eleanor wants to make up for having a low score (around -4,000 points), she decides to start doing good deeds around her neighborhood. She holds the door open for her fellow citizens all day, and greets them kindly. However, when she checks her score later her score is basically unchanged.

She realizes that the reason her score isn’t increasing is because she has the wrong motivations. She isn’t helping people to improve their lives or to make them happier, she is doing it because she doesn’t want to be sent to The Bad Place, which is selfish. She realizes that in order to actually do morally good deeds, she has to be properly motivated to do the right things. Later in the series she learns to actually do things for the proper motivations, and gets joy from making her neighbors happy (for the right reasons). Her score then improves.

This series is fun and lackadaisical, so it’s not meant to be taken too seriously, but this part seemed to bother me a little bit. Of course, we can say that someone doing good deeds for mostly selfish motivations isn’t truly altruistic and may not be someone of laudable moral character. Eleanor seems to recognize this. But once she recognizes this, how is she supposed to change her motivations? At the end of the day she still doesn’t want to be tortured for all of eternity, and avoiding this fate is her driving motivation for the first season and her ultimate personal goal. How is one supposed to change their motivations? We can’t just flip a switch and decide to be motivated for unselfish reasons. As difficult as changing one’s motivations may be, it is especially hard to do so when there is the threat of eternal damnation in the balance (which everyone should justifiably want to avoid).

This problem always severely bothered me about Christian eschatology, even when I was very young. In order to go to Heaven you must be a good person (even if the only criterion for being a good person is accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and savior). But how is one supposed to be sufficiently and genuinely good, when the fear of Hell and the desire for eternal paradise are very clear factors for our fate? An apologist will say that even the worst sinner imaginable is capable of being saved, they just need to sincerely accept Jesus into their heart before dying. But how sincere can a flawed human possibly be when literally the greatest reward or punishment imaginable are factors in the equation? When the difference is literally adding or subtracting infinity, there’s no way this can be ignored.

Imagine the hypothetical serial killer about to be given a lethal injection. On the day of their injection, they could make the assumption that Christian theology is the correct one, and try to accept Jesus into their heart. They could pray to their god for forgiveness, and accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. Try to put yourself in their shoes, though. Assume, for the sake of argument, that you were convinced that Christianity as described in the Bible is true. Who in that situation wouldn’t try to change their situation?

If you sincerely believed that literal unending torture awaited you without repentance, wouldn’t you be terrified and trying to do anything to rectify the situation upon your impending execution? It would be unreasonable not to try and change that situation. But if you are worried about changing unending torture to eternal bliss, how could any of your behavior in that situation be sincere and not factor that in? Would you truly be accepting Jesus into your heart? Or would it simply be reasonably trying to avoid the worst possible punishment for the greatest possible reward. I know that I would find it hard to avoid.

Even as a child, when I believed that the criteria for going to Heaven was good deeds and bad behavior sent you to Hell (and not accepting Jesus into your heart and asking for forgiveness), I recognized the futility of trying to be a truly good Christian. How is it possible to change your motivation to be a purely good person with purely good intentions? Being good for the sake of getting into Heaven is selfish. Once you recognize that is selfish, isn’t trying to shift towards unselfish motivations in itself a selfish act, since the ultimate goal is to try to get into Heaven anyway? Even if you do happen to have some altruistic motivations, isn’t the greatest risk avoidance conceivably possible somewhere in the equation?

And, of course, this does call into question a god that would design a system this way anyway. Ostensibly, this god has both provided the consequences and the rules dictating who recieves these consequences. This god has laid the game out ahead of us (assuming the Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth are clear). Wouldn’t the players in this game generally behave in a way that gets them the desired goal? This god is basically rewarding dishonest behavior by giving us the rules ahead of time, and this god is behaving in the most coercive manner possible. Or, if a person has to meet these criteria in a genuine manner, this is a practically impossible task, and this god is dooming the entirety of humankind to an inevitable eternal torment.

In a humanistic moral framework, there is less conflict. Obviously, good intentions are ideal, but the impact of our actions is what matters. Morality involves promoting well-being and reducing harm. Whether or not someone has ideal motivations for their actions, if there is a good outcome then we should generally encourage similar actions to promote well-being in the future. If someone’s motivations are poor, we can encourage better motivations, since presumably better motivations will cause better behaviors in the future. But ultimately, in a godless universe, there is no coercion in the form of eternal happiness or torture. The responsibility is on us to make sure our fellow thinking beings are as well-off as possible.

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