Ezekiel 18: God’s Message of Hope . . . If You Think there’s No Hope for You

Hope for the Hopeless, by Vana Howell

Hope for the Hopeless, by Vana Howell

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:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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24 comments on “Ezekiel 18: God’s Message of Hope . . . If You Think there’s No Hope for You
  1. Emile says:

    Sir… Thank you. But this message only applies to the House of Israel. Not to anyone else. And when you suggest to “make efforts”… Forget about it… It always ends worse…

    • Lee says:

      Hi Emile,

      Yes, the immediate audience was the ancient Israelites. However, when we read “Israel” in the Bible, we can think of it as God speaking to God’s people. “Israel” represents “the church” in a broad sense, meaning all people of faith who look to God and seek to follow God’s commandments. Therefore if you believe in God and seek to follow God’s commandments, then when God is speaking to Israel in the Bible, God is spiritually speaking to you.

      I’m sorry that your experience has been so difficult. However, I continue to believe that those who do not give up, but keep walking the walk day in and day out, will over time move forward toward God and toward a better life. It won’t be easy. It will take a long time—probably a lifetime. And for some people it will take years of counseling and therapy. But it is possible to leave our past behind, and move on to a new life.

  2. Elbert Smith says:

    Thanks for this discussion Lee. Good work. All we readers are blessed in the inspiration.

  3. Adam Seward says:

    Excellent Bible selection, Lee. And of course, I like your commentary, too.

  4. PAUL says:

    Wow. What a message of hope for all who have lead wayward lives but have chosen to change and amend their ways. I certainly needed and need to hear that message and also those whom I have loved deeply that did change before they died including my beloved deceased wife.

  5. Luna says:

    Hi Lee,

    Here is a question from one of my close friends:

    I am worried that even though I know for a fact how to differ between right wrong, I still have an urge to do the wrong things. Sometimes I have the urge to hurt people intentionally and I don’t know why. I obviously would never commit that action, but if it is true that it is our true heart that leads us to either heaven or hell, I am worried that even though I am resisting that urge right now, that my true heart is evil and wants to do those hurtful things. I don’t know what to do and I’m terrified of the idea that I will have to give up an eternal life in heaven with the rest of my family just because my own heart has urges to do wrong and immoral things (such as stealing, kicking or hurting someone). I truly want to change the way I think, but I am immensely worried that my true heart is more evil than good.


    Could you give her some advice?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Luna,

      Please tell your friend Maggie that she is already doing the most important thing: not acting on her urges to do what she knows is wrong. And tell her that if she wants to take it one step farther, when she has an urge to intentionally hurt someone, contradict that urge by intentionally helping that person in some way instead. It could be as simple as giving that person a smile or a compliment or an encouraging word, or helping them to carry a heavy load.

      We can’t directly control the desires that come into our heart, any more than we can directly control the thoughts that come into our head. And contrary to the “wisdom” of pop psychology, we are not born naturally good, but naturally self-centered. We start out as infants and toddlers thinking of our own comfort and happiness and toys first. As children, teens, and adults, we have to grow out of this natural self-centeredness. So if she has selfish desires to hurt other people, especially if someone gets in her way or annoys her in some way, join the club! That’s part of the human condition.

      What we can control, especially as teenagers and adults, is what thoughts and desires we act upon, and what thoughts and desires we don’t act upon. The most important thing is to do the right thing even when our heart is urging us to do the wrong thing. If we do this every time a wrong desire comes over us, then over time, we will “starve out” our wrong desires. They will get weaker and weaker because they never gain the power of being expressed in action.

      Meanwhile, if we do the opposite of what they are urging us to do, we feed the good desires of our heart by giving them expression. It may be hard at first to say something nice to a person whom we find annoying. But over time we will come to enjoy saying and doing good things for people. More and more, the thought of saying or doing something mean and hurtful will feel awful to us, and we will feel more and more joy and satisfaction in doing what is good and right for other people.

      This is how we train our heart not to have those bad and destructive urges. It takes time—usually many years—and it can sometimes feel like hard work. But if we keep at it, our heart will change. Then we’ll look back on those bad urges and wonder how we could ever have felt that way. Because then we will have a new heart. Not a perfect heart, mind you. But a good heart.

      I hope this is helpful to your friend.

      • Luna says:

        So, if she just continues to ignore and not act upon these hurtful desires, then she will go to heaven with a good heart?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Luna,

          Yes, she will.

        • Luna says:

          Here is Maggie’s follow up-

          “Is it possible for someone to refuse to respond to these desires and still have a bad heart? Since whether you get into heaven and hell is based off of your true heart, is it possible that even if I continue to resist these desires for the rest of my life, I will go to hell? I don’t know why but I continue to have these desires even though I wouldn’t act on them because of just how morally wrong they are and the consequences that would come with them. I am worried that even if I try to resist, I am evil at the depths of my heart.”

        • Lee says:

          Hi Luna,

          Please tell your friend Maggie:

          This would happen only if, while resisting the urges to do what is bad and wrong, you don’t make the effort to do what is good and right instead. We must not only “stop doing wrong,” but must also “learn to do right” (Isaiah 1:16–17).

          I presume your friend Maggie is still young, and has most of her life ahead of her. If so, she must have patience, and continue to resist wrong urges of her heart, but do the good things that are the opposite of them instead. If her heart urges her to lie, she should force herself to tell the truth instead. If her heart urges her to kick someone, she should force herself to make peace with that person instead, or if that is not possible, to simply step away from that person. If her heart urges her to engage in casual sex, she must force herself to keep her footsteps pointed toward a good and healthy future marriage relationship instead. And so on.

          If she does this day after day, week after week, and year after year, in time she will be able to look back, compare the heart she has developed now to the heart she had when she was younger, and see that indeed, because she has compelled herself to do the good instead of the evil, her heart has changed, and no longer has the types of urges it did before—or if it does, they are weak compared to her heart’s urges for good.

          This is a lifelong process. It will not happen all at once. If she commits herself to do good, and if she slips up, to get back on the path, she will see the change, and her fears will gradually become a thing of the past.

  6. Toba says:


    This is where the huuuge traffic in those other of your preliminary articles, like that detriment of good looks(& its lack thereof), sex controversies, pornography, marriage et al, is meant to be.

    Is this not the greatest information on earth?

    Is this not what all hearts; feint and skeptical need to hear?

    Isn’t this one other crucial topic you introduced with expressions of how it’s one very chapter you love in the bible, or a topic dear to your… In fact, whenever you preface your articles with such stuff as ‘I want to talk to you about something so dear to my heart…” , that’s the dearest thing the word ‘dear’ could be used for in the whole wide world.

    Or better still dearest info’ to be shared, or dearest input of righteousness by one being to his fellow on this very terrestrial terrain.

    Oh yes, much more than even teaching one how to fish.

    Or are we going to say awareness of the fact that there’s a puddle down there or a river, and that in it are fishes, isn’t preliminary? Before one then realizes, oh there are even ways to catch few singles or plenty at a time..(before i go off rail with my analogy myself pls).

    Matter of fact, he(mr Lee) by the way, actually teaches how to fish too, and why? Just so we can have a ream of blessingsss.

    Or please, isn’t that what it has almost predominantly been about? telling us; you don’t have to bear on with those burdens, simply acknowledge this LOVE being bestowed upon you at no cost, and endeavor to refrain from bad works—for those who have just been uninvolved (without bad works, revelling in an incomplete definition of/shorthand form of faith’), and commence straight’way with good works, because it’s the popularly left out means and integral part of the binate criteria to attaining this much coveted eternity”.

    Or perhaps not quite coveted, disregarded! or just voidness in adequate know-how per socio-circumstance.

    Albeit leaving us NOT without the only necessary supplement of encouragement to achieving that—that indeed it can’t happen drastically, it does take time; in a gradual process.

    And more so, that the insinuated ‘works’ isn’t even to guarantee our passage into the heaven, but to typify or evince our fear and love for God & understanding too on Gods truth, which then eventually gets us into that abode..

    Sir btw, I hope and suppose i’m quite veridical with my rundown on that.
    Nevertheless, I seem to always be the latest in these your glorious chat rooms now a days sir, but ostensibly it’s no more of a loss to me than if I were the first to receive the meals.

    After all, you superbly addressed it somewhere you were telling someone (perhaps Mr Duane–may God keep blessing his intellect) that it’s better someone hungered long for these manna then get it afterwards, that such one ‘ld cherish it more..(Something like that, couldn’t be verbatim please).

    BUT….., unfortunately and evidently however, i’m not claiming I have it all figured out here, or that all is bliss or even near it, down here with me(in actuality, I’m somewhat worse off). And actually sir, that sort of leads me to my question please.

    *please don’t mind my excessive blather sir, kindly allow me culminate in a subsequent post.

    • Lee says:

      Dear Toba,

      Thanks again for your good thoughts and your kind words. I think you have come to a very good understanding of these things. Of course, putting them into practice is a little bit harder! For that, God gives us a lifetime to work on it. And then we can keep learning and growing in spirit to eternity.

  7. Toba says:

    Hello sir.

    Sir, could you eventually tell me what I don’t want to hear please?

    You all, they all and His very self, did impress, we should seek first the kingdom and its righteousness, then all these things would be added unto us.

    I am earnestly seeking after this kingdom sir, but these things aren’t adding up to me at all.

    I mean these things are very much needed, and not for me alone (& He knows that!). Am I just not seeking sufficiently or what on earth please?

    I’m fake?…I don’t deserve it?.. I want more than I can chew, or I’m just idling out in the air longing blessings from the sky? Sir please what!

    How much tillings of the ground did father Abraham do or Job that they got that much, I wonder. Perhaps coincidental luck some’ might say, but then to serve what allegorical depiction… That only one in a thousand would have barely enough to live on..(sir please I’m not directing these to you o, but the younger readers).

    AND please lastly sir, although I guess you’ve addressed this (smidgenly) in some other article but, perhaps for a future reader who couldn’t have come across it there and expressly for my spiritual-dumpling self, sir please, does this emphasis on good, render us sort of docile or almost dumb in the face of this challenging life?

    I was actually so eased at some place I fortuitously came across your exposure of the retribution on those who backslide i.e been in the light already, then turn around to do wicked. If mistakenly they die there for instance, they’ve as well lost their SALVATION (which is worst of all punishments lol. It was in one almost-hidden paragraph in that enormous article, although directly from the Bible anyway as you pointed out).

    But sir, how about when they’re just not reciprocating this fairness evenly? I mean why didn’t Jesus retort; forgive them uncountable times! (as intellectually eloquent as he was) or even a gazellion times atleast, but 77 x 7 or how did he even put it please.

    Sir couldn’t it be because there’s an ultimate limit still, to our bearing undue treatment?
    Otherwise the implication on a broader context ‘ld be that we less privileged Nigerians should in the face of our inconsiderate ruling class, just resort to forever keeping mum and hopeful like poor Lazarus.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Toba,

      These are all very good questions. First about this:

      But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33, and also Luke 12:31)

      First, the whole passage does not say not to provide these things for ourselves, but not to worry about them. We should certainly provide for ourselves and our families the physical necessities of life. Otherwise how can we be fit to love and serve our neighbor, as Jesus commands us to do? However, our attitude should not be one of care and worry, but one of cheerfully doing our work and our duties, serving other people out of love as we provide for ourselves and our families. If we do this, then we are also more likely to have our physical needs met.

      But, as you say, this doesn’t always happen. Some people do not have enough food and clothing to sustain life. Keep in mind that the Lord does not say when all these things will be added to us. Perhaps in this life they will not. But if we seek God’s kingdom first, and his righteousness, then in the next life God will indeed provide for all of our needs, even if they did not come to us in this life. In fact, when what we need to sustain our physical life fails, and we die as a result, God then welcomes us into the spiritual world, where, if our heart is in the right place, we will never know hunger, starvation, and nakedness again.

      The main point is that rather than spending all of our time worrying about our physical needs, we are here on earth to seek God’s kingdom, and his righteousness, which means seeking to love and serve God by loving and serving our fellow human beings. If we do this here on earth, then God will take care of our spiritual needs even if this earth and its society fails to take care of our physical needs. Because spiritual food is the bread of life, and spiritual clothing is the garments of righteousness.

      For another explanation of Matthew 6:33, please read Emanuel Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia #8478.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Toba,

      Now about those who backslide from light to darkness, and about forgiving seventy times seven times:

      First, God forgives us seventy million times seven million times, no matter how much we do evil. If we go to hell, it is not because God has not forgiven us. It is because we refuse to accept God’s forgiveness, because our heart is evil and we desire to continue doing evil.

      Someone who has known and lived in the light, and then goes on to live in darkness and evil instead, has made that choice. It is not for lack of knowledge, because such a person knew the light, but ultimately chose not to follow it. And though God still forgives that person, that person will continue to turn his or her back on God, because such people prefer darkness to light, even knowing the difference very clearly in their minds.

      After death, such people are not punished for any of the evil they have done on earth. But if their heart loves darkness and evil, they will continue to do the same evil deeds in the afterlife, and for that ongoing evil they will be punished.

      All of this is why we must walk in the light while we have it. Because if the light in us becomes darkness, then that darkness is dark indeed!

  8. Toba says:

    Please good day sir.
    I just want to thank you for the reply. Kept checking back for it, but eventually saw it later at night. I’ll certainly check the link out.
    Please have a great day(& worship) and do have a blessed week ahead sir.
    And well done with all too sir.

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