Does Ezekiel 18:20 teach that Souls can die? The short answer is that this passage is talking about physical death and not incorporeal existence or lack thereof in the after life. Many older translations like the KJV render this verse as 'Soul' and indeed the Hebrew word here is 'Nephesh' which can refer to an immaterial part of man. But 'Nephesh' can refer to the material part of man as well, or even animals and plants which is evidenced in the opening chapters of Genesis. Many newer translations render it 'Person' here because of this, not to mention that it's old testament citation uses 'Person'.
So why am I making a post about this verse? Well, it is my conviction that understanding this verse as teaching a death of souls leads to many errors in doctrine. Some of these errors are serious and others are not. I have seen Annihilationists, and Trichotomists use it in this fashion. Those opposing the doctrine of Original Sin abuse this text repeatedly citing the second part of the verse as support for a denial of the imputation of Adam's sinful guilt to all of mankind from birth. I am not saying that all of these folks do this deliberately, perhaps most of them do this without meditating on such a pericope in light of other scriptures that seem contradictory. So my goal in this post is to explain what this verse really means according to the context and historical analysis. In other words what did Ezekiel mean when he said this?
In order to understand the author's intended meaning here, it is important to examine the immediate context and then the historical setting to understand Ezekiel's audience. This will give us important clues as to Ezekiel's practical application. This chapter opens up with a question about a proverb in circulation which reads " The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge " . It blames the present situation of exile on the older generation, and bespeaks the fatalism of the “children” of the Exile.
The only other place that I have found that quotes this proverb is in Jeremiah 31:29;30. The meaning in both places differs in details, but both have in common the notion of blaming the current situation on the previous sinful history of ancestry. Since Jeremiah was older and both Ezekiel and Jeremiah were preaching the certainty of Judah's future punishment for her sins in Jerusalem, some believe Ezekiel to be Jeremiah's pupil. We know that Ezekiel wrote this chapter sometime between 590-591 BC since Ezekiel was so meticulous in dating his visions many times right down to the day. This means that this proverb being used was in circulation at least during the time that Nebuchadnezzar the 2nd was ruling Babylon, and possibly when Jehoiachin was ruling Jerusalem.
Though little is known about Jehoiachin's death, it appears that after the 597 BC siege Nebuchadnezzar the 2nd enthroned Jehoiachin's uncle Mattaniah (whom he later renamed Zedekiah) as a Babylonian puppet. It was during the reign of Mattaniah that a massive deportation involving 10,000 Judahites occured, and Ezekiel was among this group (Ezekiel 40:1).
At the end of his eleven year reign in 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar succeeded in capturing Jerusalem. Zedekiah and his followers attempted to escape, making their way out of the city, but were captured on the plains of Jericho, and were taken to Riblah. There, after seeing his sons put to death, his own eyes were put out, and, being loaded with chains, he was carried captive to Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-7; 2 Chronicles 36:12; Jeremiah 32:4,-5; 34:2-3; 39:1-7; 52:4-11; Ezekiel 12:13), where he remained a prisoner until he died.
In the next two verses we have a statement of disapproval of this proverb from the Lord, and then a claim to ownership of all souls. It seems that the thrust of this disapproval and claim of ownership lies in the fact that men were treating other men as property and functionally making themselves arbiters of justice, instead of God's law. This could also be because many Suzerain treaties required allegiance to other Gods. Ezekiel then gives three examples of how this thinking results in injustice and arbitrariness or righteousness and justice. Now we can examine the main passage in question. What is it that verse 20 means when it says:
NAU Ezekiel 18:20 "The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself. (Eze 18:20 NAU)
So given that Ezekiel's audience are those in the captivity of Babylon under the reign of Mattaniah /Zedekiah, these exiles would be imbibing certain laws that Nebuchadnezzar would of required his enthroned vassal ruler Mattaniah to enforce to this annexed people. This was the common way a ruler would expand his territory in the ancient near east after a victory. This mode was called a Suzerain-Vassal treatise. The Suzerain (in this case Nebuchdnezzar) would appoint a Vassal (In this case Mattaniah) to enforce the Suzerain's rules on this newly appended people group. Much like our state representatives enforcing federal laws. Many of these rules were simply court rulings about murder, marriage ,trading, theft, and employment.
One thing almost all of these treaty laws had in common in the middle east was the concept of Vicarious Punishment. Vicarious punishment occurs when the tendency to engage in a behavior is weakened after having observed the negative consequences for another engaging in that behavior. This is similar to the aforementioned case of Mattaniah watching his children die for his rebellion. What this scripture is teaching is that among magistrates this was not how God commanded legal cases in court to be done among the Jews. This verse has absolutely nothing to do with how God punishes anyone or reckons their guilt, and everything to do with how mankind should among each other.
You see, before verse 20 Ezekiel points out their objection saying:
19 "Yet you say, 'Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity?' When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. (Eze 18:19 NAU)
Some examples of this vicarious punishment can be found in scripture and in many ancient middle east writings. Ezekiel responds to their proverb and objection by quoting Deuteronomy 24:16 in verse 20. In his work on Ezekiel, Greenberg makes the observation that Ezekiel’s theological principle (vv. 4, 20) is a literary inversion of and, therefore, an intentional reference to the law of individual responsibility in Deut 24:16. (“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin”):
Deut 24:16 Ezek 18:20
1. not fathers for children 3. the soul sinning dies
2. children not for fathers 2. son not with the father
3. each dies for his sin 1. father not with the son
Deuteronomy has been well documented as work that follows this Suzerain vassal treatise form. Moses was dealing with the same issue here, so this must be Ezekiel's application as well. What sort of laws were Moses and Ezekiel talking about regarding rejection of this "Vicarious Punishment"? I will supply three examples, from a Hittite Code dating around 1650-1500 BC.
§1 [If] anyone kills a [a man] or a woman in a quarrel, he shall [bring him] (for burial) and shall give 4 persons (lit. heads), male or female respectively. He shall look [to his house for it.]
§44a If anyone shoves a man into a fire, so that he dies, (the guilty party) shall give one person (lit. head) a son in return.
§174 If (when) men are hitting each other, one of them dies, (the other) shall give one slave (lit. head).
Regarding our responsibility to God rather than other men, scripture is very clear on the matter. You see earlier in Deuteronomy 5 Moses speaks of the Jew's responsibility toward a sovereign God as a Suzerain who gives blessings and curses as stipulations to breaking or maintaining their covenant duty on that mountain. There he says:
'You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,
but showing loving kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Deu 5:9-10 NAU)
Moses and Ezekiel do not seem to present any explanation for this seeming contradiction. This implies that they did not hold this to be problematic since there was always a thread of the creator / creature distinction inherent in the Torah. In other words God as creator has and does punish often times through ancestry or federal headship but prescribes men not to do so to other men.
One example is the story of Achen in Joshua chapter 7 where Achen is stoned along with his entire family, and his property is destroyed because of his sin. Moreover in this account the Lord says that they lost the battle against Ai because of this sin against him which brought suffering to all of Joshua's people. There are other examples like the fact that each evil king of Israel of Judah brought punishment to their nations (i.e. no rain because of King Ahab 1 Kings 17f) and all the nation of Egypt was punished for Pharoah's stubbornness (Exod. 7-11). Finally whole lineages being affected due to idolatry (Exodus 20:5).
So in conclusion Ezekiel 18:4,20, like Deuteronomy 24:16 does not teach about the eternal fate of souls, spiritual death, nor do either deny the doctrine of original sin and federal headship. And they certainly do not deny that God can punish people corporately. Instead they are God's commands to us about how creatures living in a moral environment with other creatures should regulate guilt and punishment in this life. This creator creature distinction is even found in our Lord's greatest commands which were always in the law. Just as their are two prescriptions given, one for man's obligation to God and one for mankind's obligation to each other; so there is a punishment for God upon men, and another from men to men. They differ significantly and in both cases no one receives injustice. For more information see this video.
Jesus answered, "The foremost is, 'HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD;
AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.'
"The second is this, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
(Mar 12:29-31 NAU)