Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Groundhog Day, Heaven, and Hell

Yesterday while taking my daily deck break, I paged through what was available on the Fire TV we use out there. I spotted Groundhog Day, a cult classic movie starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, now acclaimed as one of the best films of the 1990s. The movie was about one-fourth done and even though I have it in my collection and have watched it a fair number of times, I clicked it on. 

And it struck me powerfully that this movie is about its lead character, Bill M. as TV weatherman Phil Connors, living in Hell every day and not even knowing it - until he does. 

He and his producer, Rita (Andi McDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) are sent to Punxsutawney, Penn., on Feb. 2 to cover the annual appearance of the famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, and its prediction of six more weeks, or not, of winter. Phil Connors (not coincidentally having the same name as the groundhog) considers the assignment beneath him. He is a jerk from beginning to end and deliberately delivers a sarcastic report of "six more weeks of winter." 

Leaving town, they are unexpectedly forced to return to Punxsutawney because of a snowstorm. But the next day he awakens to his radio alarm clock playing exactly the same song, "I Got You Babe," with exactly the same dialog by the announcer duo as the day before. When he hears them say it is Groundhog Day, he looks out the window to see there is no snow on the ground. 

Henceforth, Phil awakens every morning to discover it is Feb.2, Groundhog Day once again, the very same day it was when he woke up the last morning, and the same Feb.2 it will be the next time. Apparently forever. 

For the first several of relived days, Phil decides to hit on women, steal from an armored car to buy a Mercedes, and generally sate his fleshly desires. He even hits on his producer, Rita. But she tells him he is a jerk and rebuffs him. 

This where is struck me that Phil is in Hell. An apparent eternity of repeated Feb.2s, all identical, stretch before him. Nothing he does changes that. He comes to realize he can do anything he wants and no matter how criminal or virtuous he is, the alarm will awaken him again to yet another same old Feb. 2. 

Driven finally to despair, Phil commits suicide - day after day after day, only to wake up afterward on Feb. 2 all over again. He is living in damnation: sure, certain, and unending. 

Or, as Lewis pointed out as well, "Hell is getting your own way - forever." 

Finally, with no purpose in living one day repeated eternally, but knowing he will, Phil begins to do good things for other people. And, knowing that Rita never knows what a jerk Phil was to her on the previous repeated Feb. 2, he sets about trying to seduce her by appearing genuinely caring and compassionate. 

In that he almost succeeds. He does convince her to come to bed, though both are lying on it still fully clothed, and he tells her to go to sleep, promising, "I won't touch you - much." She does sleep, but when the radio alarm blares at 6 a.m. the next morning, Rita is not there. It is Feb. 2 once again.

Finally, Phil devotes his repeated days to living for others and not for himself. He becomes a beloved figure of the town - at least on that endlessly-repeated day. Moreover, he intentionally sets about becoming literally a different man so that Rita might come to love him as much as he has come to love her. 

But how many years of repeated Feb. 2s does it take for him to do that? According to National Post
The screenwriter’s initial plan was to have Connors trapped in the time loop for several millennia. The original script contains a final confession by Connors to his love interest Rita that “I’ve been waiting for you every day for ten thousand years.”


However, director Harold Ramis years later told The New York Times that Phil spent 33 or 34 years of repeated days, and people who worry about such things have generally accepted that. 

Finally he succeeds in romancing Rita. She finally does love him and willingly returns with him to his hotel room. She had been there before, several thousand days ago in Phil's reference, when Phil's manner became so revolting she had slapped him hard and walked right out. But on this trip, Phil makes no advances at all.  He yields control of his love to the one whom he loves. 

She goes to bed with him, but importantly, they are both fully clothed just as they had been decades before. This time, though, Phil has not merely suppressed his fleshly desires. He has discarded them as he became filled with other-centered love. And so the night passes.

As usual, Phil is awakened by the  radio alarm clock blaring the same tune it has blared for 34 years worth of Feb. 2s. But the announcers' dialog afterward is different. Phil opens his eyes and suddenly realizes the radio is not playing the same old thing. And then he sees Rita still lying next to him. 


Phil has escaped Hell and entered Heaven. If, as Lewis said, the gates of Hell are locked only on the inside, Phil discovered that the key to the gates are his heart, mind, body and spirit, and how they all are embodied in love. 

Can we really believe in Hell? 

One thing to realize is that Hell is not a future abode of the damned. Human beings are born damned to begin with. Jesus himself said so in John 3, beginning with verse 16, which we usually recite by itself, thus omitting the basic rhetorical point. Here is the whole quote (italics added):

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
If Groundhog Day can be seen as a metaphor for Hell and Heaven, neither of them is an afterlife. Phil's damnation is not that he dies and goes to Hell. He is in Hell on earth, in this life. His Hell is that even when he dies he is resuscitated to live that same day all over again. Phil's Hell is in this life, but so is the Heaven to which being filled with a pure love of others and of Rita brings him. 

The producers, writers, and director of Groundhog Day did not set out to make a Christian analog. In fact, IIRC, director Ramis professed and practiced Buddhism and saw the cycles of repeated days as an analog to reincarnation. One can also see Hindu overtones in such reincarnation - it is Phil's karma for being such a jerk, for which it takes countless repetitions for whim to work his way to Nirvana. For sure, there is no external Savior in the movie as there is in Christianity. Phil does, finally, save himself, which we Christians have always held is literally impossible. 

Yet to say there is no precise correspondence between the movie and Christian faith is not to say there is none at all. Most cogently, Phil's damnation does not begin later, it is already in place when the movie begins. 

Hence, Pope John Paul II stood on solid Scriptural ground when he wrote that hell “is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life ‘hell.’” Hell “is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject” God’s mercy.

The Kingdom of Heaven is among us now

If Hell is a real thing in this world - not a place but a state of being - then is Heaven also? Jesus thought so: 
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Luke 17.20-21
The Greek of the final sentence may also be translated as "... the kingdom of God is within you," which I think is the better phrasing.

But what is the kingdom of God? What is it that is among or within us? Nothing more (but certainly nothing less) than what transformed Phil Collins from living hellishly to heavenly. And what was that?

Once, Jesus was talking with some Pharisees, "...  and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him." 
36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Quite simply, the difference between living in Hell and living in Heaven is love. When Groundhog Day opens, Phil is clearly an unlovely man. And he stays that way for countless years of repeated days. Every day an impoverished, homeless man asks him for help, and every day Phil scorns and rejects him. He is a jerk to Rita and to cameraman Larry. He mocks the townspeople and ridicules their way of living. 

Yet viewers can discern his scorn and hatred is really self directed. He does not love others because he does not even like himself. As for Rita, the future altar of his servanthood love, he tries for many years to seduce her in bed for his own pleasure. Only when he discerns that there is literally nothing but eternal misery in hating  and using others does he start to crawl, slowly and uncertainly, out of Hell toward Kingdom living. 

He has learned the hard way that to discover who he is, he must deny himself. He has to face the abyss looming before the Self, or, as David Hart put it
And so, at the end of modernity, each of us who is true to the times stands facing not God, or the gods, or the Good beyond beings, but an abyss, over which presides the empty, inviolable authority of the individual will, whose impulses and decisions are their own moral index.
Yet to believe in nothing greater than oneself is destructive of mind and spirit and ultimately of body and soul. That is why first the Jews and later Christians emphasized self denial. For denying the Self is to renew Identity, to discover who one actually is.

Not that this is easy, though, nor perfectly achieved even by the most devoted. As Herman Melville's fictional Preacher Mapple put it in Moby Dick,


Then over time and not without difficulty, we may arrive at the fullness of love, when the Self is dethroned and we then come to know and live what we have come to be - someone whose heart is daily renewed in love because in the love of God, we fall into love every day with those whom God loves.  
God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
 
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. 1 John 4.15-21
Love is the key to the gate out of Hell. It is locked only on our side. 

Facebook Jail for citing the Bible

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