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In It's a Wonderful Life, Zuzu Bailey (most famously) says

Zuzu Bailey: Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.
It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

This was also mentioned by Clarence earlier at the bar when someone opens the till.

Clarence: [hearing the cash register ding] Oh-oh. Somebody's just made it.

George Bailey: Made what?

Clarence: Every time you hear a bell ring, it means that some angel's just got his wings.
It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

The implied causality is that IF a bell rings THEN an angels gets wings. This is supported by the line from Nick (the bartender) when he is repeatedly opening the till:

Nick: Get me! I'm givin' out wings!
It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

However, when Zuzu gives her famous line, the bell had just rung of its own accord, implying that the awarding of wings will cause some bell, somewhere, to involuntarily ring.

So which way is it?

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    One of the wonderful horrors of English is exactly this kind of ambiguity. For what it's worth, I never interpreted the causality the way you did. To me, ZuZu's maxim means, "when you hear a bell ringing, it's because an angel just earned their wings". May 15, 2018 at 16:42
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    @ToddWilcox - This makes me sad, because you almost never hear an actual bell ring anymore.
    – JohnP
    May 15, 2018 at 16:47
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    @JohnP Maybe these days it's ringtones. May 15, 2018 at 16:48
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    Free will is an illusion, God has simply designed the universe such that angels earning their wings coincides exactly with bells ringing. May 15, 2018 at 17:52
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    But on the other hand, if you do believe in free will, then it must be that bells ringing causes angels to get their wings, because while we can control when we ring bells, angels can't control getting wings. So better ring more bells, just to be sure.
    – Kai
    May 15, 2018 at 18:31

2 Answers 2

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This is speculation, but my answer to:

Does an angel earning wings cause a bell to ring, or vice versa?

Is neither.

Possibly when an angel earns his wings he goes on the list to get wings. No doubt wings are given by seniority on the list. And if people across the world ring bells often enough, it might take just minutes or seconds for enough bells around the world to ring and for him to receive his wings. So maybe God has influenced society to make the average frequency of people ringing bells be the same as the average frequency of angels earning their wings. And in this case God would have made a bell ring where George Bailey could hear it just when Clarence was the next angel on the wings list.

Therefore I would say that in the fictional universe of It's a Wonderful Life God spread the story of bell ringing coinciding with angles getting their wings, and also arranges for the frequency of bell ringing and the frequency of angels being award their wings to be extremely similar or even totally identical, for the purpose of reminding some humans of angels whenever they hear a bell ring.

Every time a human who knows and believes the story of an angel getting his wings when a bell rings hears a bell ring, he will think that another angel just earned his wings and he will be inspired to seek similar success.

In short, in the fictional universe of It's a Wonderful Life, God arranges for a bell to ring to announce every angel receiving his wings, to remind the living of angels and heaven and inspire them. God arranges - probably sending angels to take care of it - for bells to ring every time an angel is awarded his wings. Humans deciding to ring bells for human reasons doesn't cause angels to receive wings they haven't earned, and angels receiving the the wings they earned doesn't cause humans to ring bells for no humans reason, instead God arranges for the two events to coincide.

Note that the saying that whenever a bell rings an angel has received his wings is either made up for It's a Wonderful Life or an old superstition.

According to the theology of most Christian denominations, angels don't earn their wings, and don't even have wings, except when they decide to.

According to Christian theology angels are beings of spirit and as old as Creation or older. Angels don't have physical bodies, but when they interact with the physical world they can make bodies - bodies of any imaginable shape or design - for themselves out of matter. Thus they don't look like humans with feathered wings, except that when interacting with humans who are conditioned by art to expect angels to like that they might - or might not - decide to make bodies that look like stereotypical angels in art.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_angelology[1]

And the same goes for devils, who are considered fallen angels in Christian theology. Many important devils have highly individual forms they take when interacting with humans.

Asmodeus, for example, is sometimes depicted looking like this:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asmodeus#/media/File:Asmodeus.jpg[2]

Since angels are ageless and don't reproduce, there are no angels that need to earn their wings.

Many stories claim that good people become angels when they die, and thus have to earn their wings.

One example is the 1982 TV movie The Kid With the Broken Halo in which the recently deceased Andy LeBeau (Gary Coleman) is an angel in training, trying to earn his wings, and constantly goofing up and getting into trouble. Thus he is given one last chance to prove his worthiness - or else go to the other place.

But angels and the souls of good deceased humans are like two separate species, totally different, with different functions in heaven. Except that describing angels and humans as two different species is understatement.

Members of different families, and orders, and classes, and phylas of biological beings are in many ways much closer to humans than angels are. Plants and bacteria and rocks and computers are related to humans much closer than angels are, and even the most bizarre aliens from outer space are more similar to humans than angels are.

At least according to Christian theology.

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  • He was really going to go to Hell? I find that pretty hard to believe, since once in Heaven he would have already been in the Creator's grace. Pretty sure he would have been given an infinite number of tasks, perhaps increasingly more difficult although he would have learned from the previous tasks. The movie sounds like they needed a theologist as a technical advisor.
    – releseabe
    Jan 1, 2023 at 12:54
  • @relesabe Yes, the plot doesn't make sense theologically. But I guess the creators thought it was good enough for a goofy tv movie. Jan 4, 2023 at 4:59
  • Gary Coleman sure had quite a ride, anyone could have told him he would not be a star as an adult. Sucked that his own mom screwed him over financially like that. But when he was a kid, he was a very in-demand for a while.
    – releseabe
    Jan 4, 2023 at 6:27
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This is more speculation, but it should be considered that Clarence, who despite his bumbling appearance is after all an angel and therefore his intelligence far exceeds that of any human, or indeed any conceivable physical lifeform (including artificial intelligence) -- his mind and body are made of angel stuff, something like light but not light, and he therefore thinks with infinite speed and is prescient, etc.

Given the above, he is making an angelic joke that no human could be expected to understand at first. His joke is indeed one to make George Bailey think about free will and causality, things angels understand and George will one day understand also if he only realizes how precious his life is.

Clarence, who came to teach not just George but any human he encounters, tells this joke about bells ringing as a sort of Zen koan (公案) -- note that sadly his joke is wasted on the bartender and the rest of the patrons in the alternate universe, who merely ridicule it while George passes the joke to his daughter who may one day understand it in its fullness.

Note: Clarence as an angel was more than capable of destroying the bartender and his goons for his insolence, ala' Raiders of the Lost Ark but that was not his purpose and those people were perhaps shadows of the real people -- the alternate universe was possibly not a real universe but one made only for George Bailey to observe -- and if not real, the humans were not sentient, they were as characters in a dream. Their behavior was in fact controlled by Clarence for whom I hope people have more respect. Being an angel, even one without wings, is quite a big deal and are inconceivably more than they were as humans.

There is clearly more to It's a Wonderful Life than a casual viewing might lead one to believe -- it is the most profound of films, if people would think about it carefully.

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