I want to talk to you about one of my favorite chapters in the entire Bible: Ezekiel 18.
If you think you’re a goner, destined for the eternal flames of hell, this is the chapter for you. Ezekiel 18 delivers the clear message that no matter where you came from and no matter what you’ve done, you can leave your past in the past, and move forward to a new life.
- You’re not condemned because of what your parents did or didn’t do.
- You’re not condemned because of what you yourself did in the past.
- It’s the way you’re living now that counts.
You can’t change how your parents raised you.
You can’t change what you did in the past.
But you can change the way you are living now.
And that is Ezekiel 18’s message of hope for you.
Only the person who sins will die
In Bible times the prophets were God’s mouthpiece. They delivered God’s messages, good or bad, to the people of Israel.
In Ezekiel chapter 18 God starts out by declaring that children will no longer be held guilty of the sins of their parents. Ezekiel writes:
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. (Ezekiel 18:1–4)
This might seem like a no-brainer. Today, most judges and courts around the world would never punish someone for crimes his or her parents committed. But in earlier societies, including ancient Israelite society, this was common, and it was believed to be just. If a man committed a serious crime, his wife and children, too, would often be executed in order to cut off his family lineage. This is what happened to three men named Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in Numbers 16. Not only they, but their entire families were destroyed because the three of them had rebelled against the Lord.
But in Ezekiel 18 God put a decisive end to this practice. From that time forward, by the Lord’s own decree, only the individual who sinned would die. Not the parents. Not the children.
Because of the Israelites’ resistance to this new directive, God drove it home in detail, complete with examples, in Ezekiel 18:1–20.
Some of the forbidden actions detailed in these verses are no longer considered evil and wrong today. The important point is that people who obeyed the laws given for their society and culture would live, regardless of what their parents or their children did. And people who broke those laws would die, regardless of what their parents or their children did.
Society hasn’t gotten the message
Of course, as I just said, today we would never convict children for the crimes of their parents.
Or would we?
Yes, most court systems around the world are now solidly based on the same principle that is outlined in Ezekiel 18: that only the individual who commits a crime will be convicted and punished. None of that person’s family members will be charged or convicted unless they themselves participated in the crime.
But socially, we haven’t quite gotten the message.
Even in today’s society, when someone does something that the community doesn’t like, it is common to ostracize and socially penalize that person’s family, friends, and associates. Guilt by association is still alive and well. Even if our judicial system doesn’t punish people who are connected with a wrongdoer or undesirable person, our society does. And the children of these socially undesirable people are commonly subjected to hostility and prejudice even if they themselves have done nothing wrong and may not even agree with what their parents did.
By the same token, when a teenager or young adult commits a serious crime, the parents often come under intense scrutiny and criticism. Many people assume that if someone goes bad, his or her parents must be to blame because of the way they raised their son or daughter. And sometimes that may be true, especially when the offender is a teenager. But once people become adults, they become responsible for their own actions.
In other words, even today our society today still has a lot of work to do in following the principle that God laid out in Ezekiel 18: that children will not be punished for the sins of their parents, nor will parents be punished for the sins of their children.
Punishing children for the iniquity of parents
But there is a still deeper way in which the wrongs of parents are passed down to their children. And it is the one we are most concerned with right now.
In Exodus 20, in explaining the commandment against making and worshiping idols, God says these famous words:
For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me. (Exodus 20:5)
This is one of the reasons the ancient Israelites thought it was right and proper for children to be punished for the sins of their parents.
But God’s words to the contrary in Ezekiel 18 suggest that we should look deeper. And the traditional King James translation of the same verse offers a direction for this deeper understanding:
For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. (italics added)
The Hebrew word פָּקַד (paqad), often translated “punishing” in modern versions, does indeed have the root meaning of visiting, and it is used that way many times in the Hebrew Bible. This suggests that the basic meaning of Exodus 20:5 is not so much punishing as transferring over to. In other words, parents’ wrongs get passed down to children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
And it’s true. The people who care for us and raise us from our infancy through our childhood and teenage years do have a profound effect on our psyche. We hear, sense, and internalize their words, their attitudes, and their actions toward us. And we naturally fall into the same types of attitudes and actions that they do. Then we pass them, good or bad, right on down to our own children and grandchildren.
These are the “sins of our parents” that we each battle with in our own soul. Our parents’ words, sometimes harsh, sometimes hurtful, sometimes belittling, echo in our minds and make us second-guess ourselves. We fight against, and often succumb to, the same petty and destructive attitudes and behaviors that we saw them engaging in as we grew up. And we may think that because of who they were and what they did, there is no hope for us.
This is how we are psychologically and spiritually “punished for the sins of our parents.”
And Ezekiel 18 is telling us that we no longer have to bear the weight of what our parents did. We can break free from our parents in our own mind and heart.
In fact, this is what we must do in order to become our own person—to become self-responsible adults who determine our own life and our own direction.
The family chains that hold us back
That influence of our parents on our mind and heart can become a chain holding us back. Here is how Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) expresses it:
We are all born with the bad traits of selfishness and materialism that we get from our parents. Every bad trait that has become second nature to us through long habit is passed on to our children. So these faults have been passed down from our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors before them, one after the other, in a long chain stretching backwards. Finally, so many bad traits have been passed down to us that all of our own life is nothing but faults. (The New Jerusalem #175)
Isn’t that how we often feel about ourselves? As if we’re rotten to the core, and there’s nothing good in us? We may trace that feeling about ourselves back to our childhood and the attitudes and messages we received from our parents. And it may leave us feeling that our life is a total wreck.
If that’s how you feel about yourself and your life, you are not alone. Thousands of years ago David, the Psalmist, expressed the same feelings:
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads. (Psalm 22:6–7)
And in another place he expressed the feeling of being completely destroyed, body and soul, and under a curse from God:
Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.
My guilt has overwhelmed me
like a burden too heavy to bear. . . .
I am feeble and utterly crushed;
I groan in anguish of heart. (Psalm 38:3–4, 8)
About that wrath, please see: “What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?” What these Psalms especially express is the feeling of being a goner, with no hope. And yet if you read the full Psalms you will see that the Psalmist does still have hope for salvation from the Lord.
It is the same hope that God offers in Ezekiel 18: that no matter what our parents may have done, or done to us, we do not have to suffer forever for it. We can turn our life around. We can move toward something better.
Breaking the chains in our own life
We can turn our life around and move toward something better because we have the ability to break free from the chains our family may have bound us with, and take control of our own life. We can emancipate ourselves from them intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and set out on a new and better life for ourselves.
After laying out that bleak picture of all the faults and bad habits that are passed down to us from our parents and grandparents, Swedenborg goes on to say:
The only way this continuing chain of bad traits can be broken and changed is by living in faith and kindness from the Lord. (The New Jerusalem #175)
That is precisely what God told us through the prophet Ezekiel many centuries ago:
But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:21–23, italics added)
God has no pleasure in seeing us go down in flames and defeat. God wants us to live! And if we are willing to take control of our own life and shake off the legacy of destructive, self-defeating attitudes and habit patterns, we can move on to a new and better life.
Further, if we do this God promises us that none of the bad things we have done in the past will be held against us anymore. Yes, we may still have to take the consequences of our actions civilly and socially. But spiritually what matters is not how we lived in the past, but how we are living in the present.
In the final verses of Ezekiel 18, God exhorts us to take the steps necessary to leave our past behind and begin a new life:
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live. (Ezekiel 18:30–32)
Mind you, God didn’t say it would be easy to turn from any faulty ways and negative messages our parents may have ingrained on us. God didn’t say it would be easy to expel the wrong attitudes and desires from our own heart and mind. God didn’t say it would be easy to begin a new life.
But if it were not possible, God wouldn’t bother urging and imploring us to do it.
No matter how bad you think you are, and no matter how bad you think your life is, Ezekiel 18 offers you a powerful message of hope.
It is possible for you to break the family chains that hold you back.
It is possible for you to leave your past behind.
It is possible to start a new and better life.
And if you do, none of the things you have done in the past will be remembered against you. You will become a new person, with a new life. And that is the life you will carry with you into eternity.
That’s because what determines whether we go to heaven or hell is not what we’ve done in the past, but what we keep doing in the present. What matters is what our character has become by the time of our death.
Our character doesn’t change instantly. But if we put in the effort day in and day out to reform our character during our years here on earth, then it will not the person we’ve been in the past, but the person we’ve become by the time our life on earth is over that we will carry with us into our future life in the spiritual world.
How do we go about reforming our character during our lifetime here on earth? For some pointers we invite you to read these articles:
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- If You Think You’re Going to Hell, Please Read This First
- What does it Mean to be Baptized with Water, the Holy Spirit, and Fire?
- Is it Easy or Hard to Get to Heaven?
- How Can a Criminal Get to Heaven?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth