Do live and die mean eternal life and death in Ezekiel 18:21-28


So there I am in a back alley, behind a dumpster, bruised and broken inside but sipping a French roast coffee and eating a Denver omelet. Two charitable atheists gave them to me and said, “We like that Pope Francis and think the Year of Mercy is a good idea.” One of them slipped me $20. So I began to immediately think about what nice chaps they were. All of a sudden Ezekiel 18 pops into my head and I began to ponder,

“Do live and die in Ezekiel 18:21-28 mean eternal life and eternal death?”

I couldn’t decide while reading the readings from today Mass, Friday the first week of Lent 2016. While deep in thought they brought me a refill. Nice fellows.


New American Bible (Revised Edition) (NABRE)

21 But if the wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live. He shall not die! 22 None of the crimes he has committed shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of the justice he has shown. 23 Do I find pleasure in the death of the wicked—oracle of the Lord God? Do I not rejoice when they turn from their evil way and live?

24 And if the just turn from justice and do evil, like all the abominations the wicked do, can they do this evil and still live? None of the justice they did shall be remembered, because they acted treacherously and committed these sins; because of this, they shall die. 25 You say, “The Lord’s way is not fair!”[a] Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair? Are not your ways unfair? 26 When the just turn away from justice to do evil and die, on account of the evil they did they must die. 27 But if the wicked turn from the wickedness they did and do what is right and just, they save their lives; 28 since they turned away from all the sins they committed, they shall live; they shall not die.


18:25 The Lord’s way is not fair: this chapter rejects the idea that punishment is transferred from one generation to the next and emphasizes individual responsibility and accountability.


Are you asking what it meant in the context of Jews in exile in Babylon to whom Ezekiel prophesied?

Or are you asking how we interpret this passage in a holistic sense, in the context of all of Scripture?

In the time of Ezekiel, there was no established doctrine of eternal life, eternal reward/punishment, or heaven/hell. What they believed was that there would be reward on earth for virtuous actions and punishment on earth for sinful actions. Therefore, ‘life’ and ‘death’ mean precisely that: ‘life on earth’ and ‘human death’.

In the context of the whole Bible, including Jesus’ New Covenant, we can look at this passage and recognize that it can be applied to His teaching on the final judgment (aka “sheep and goats”): those who act virtuously (having believed in Him) attain to eternal life with Him; those who fail to act virtuously (and these include people who believe in Him – after all, they call Him ‘Lord’!) receive eternal punishment.



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