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Bible Q

Are we punished for the sins of our fathers?

The person who asked this question also wrote:

    It is so hard to believe that if someone’s Grandfather was a wicked man, God would punish his grandchildren who love God. I do believe in the consequences of sin, but does God punish our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for our sins?

Well, God does say that children can be punished for the sins of their fathers. For example:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exo 34:6-7)

In another case, Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebelled against God, and:

…the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. (Num 16:31-32)

There are other examples like this.

On the other hand, there’s Ezekiel 18. At the start, God asks:

What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?  (Ezek 18:2)

The proverb meant that children suffer for the actions of their fathers. The rest of the chapter goes into a denial of this in considerable detail saying that “the one who sins is the one who will die” (Eze 18:4). And there are other similar passages, such as

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Mic 6:7)

What are we to make of this?

Well, first we need to understand the difference between corporate punishment and personal punishment. Corporate punishment means getting punished as a group. In his relationship with the Israelites, God treated them as a single group, and a punishment might take a generation of two to manifest, or might last for more than a few generations. This didn’t mean that the following generations were guilty of the same sin (though of course they would have their own sins).

We also need to understand the difference between punishment in this world and judgment in the next too. For instance, just because a faithful person was caught up in the punishment of a previous generation didn’t mean that God had judged that person personally.

Daniel is a case in point. He was taken to Babylon as part of a punishment given to Josiah, a generation before (and probably only distantly related). He proved his own faith anyway — though he clearly recognised that he was part of an Israel that deserved punishment:

We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. (Dan 9:6-7)

So I think that while there is punishment for following generations in some contexts, we shouldn’t let that trouble us in our personal relationship with God — we can rely on his promise to treat us unfairly, to show us grace that we don’t deserve.

One Reply to “Are we punished for the sins of our fathers?”

  1. ezekiel 18 is a future prophecy of change in that law. God specifically says, he will not require the blood of the righteous son because of his unrighteous father.
    God changes this and efficiently so.
    We see this in christs ministry