Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, June 10, 2024

Bible Contradictions: Are Children Punished for the Sins of their Parents?

I saw an atheists’ website that listed one of their favorite “contradictions.” God says he will punish “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exod 20:54; cf. Deut 5:9). However, in Ezekiel 18:4 God says, “The person who sins is the one who will die.” So which is it? Are children punished for the sins of their parents, or does the parents’ punishment end with them?

Once again, this apparent contradiction is based on a misinterpretation of the text and missing the context. First of all, let’s read the entire verse. God will punish “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me.” This is not how God treats all people but only those who hate him, which I would conclude includes the parents and the children.

Also, reading the next verse is a clue that something else is happening. God will show “love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Certainly, he does not mean that one righteous parent insures God’s love for the next thousand generations, and notice that in this case, the promise is for “those who love me and keep my commandments.”

The fact of the matter is that we all know that when a parent lives in unrighteousness, it affects the children such that they too tend to live in unrighteousness, and both parents and children suffer the consequences of their own sin. This is the influence that most parents have over most of their children.

When we get to Ezekiel, things are different. Alexander points out the earlier proverb, “Like mother, like daughter” (16:44). In other words, consecutive generations were adopting the behavior of their parents and suffering the same punishment. But apparently, what had happened was that the Jewish exiles had become fatalistic. They were saying, “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezek 18:2) Why change their behavior when they are still going to be punished for the sins of their parents that had led to the exile?

No, Ezekiel responds, that is not the case. God says, “‘As surely as I live,’ declares the Sovereign LORD, ‘you will not quote this proverb in Israel anymore! Indeed! All lives are mine—the life of the father as well as the life of the son is mine. The one who sins will die” (vv 3–4). People have always paid the penalty for their own sins, but from a practical point of view, parents have a significant impact on their children, both for good and for ill.

Alexander concludes, “But the exiles who have received Ezekiel’s message have misunderstood the message of Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9. This principle of the Decalogue teaches that children will be affected by their father’s sin. Parents model for their children. The sinful behavior of parents is readily followed by their children. Regrettably, therefore, children frequently find themselves practicing the same sinful acts as their fathers. Likewise, they must accept the same just punishment for such actions. But each child is still individually responsible and can abort the “sin–punishment–inheritance” progression at any time. To do so, however, that child must repent and do what is right.”

The good news is that there is always a way “out.” As generation after generation may spiral down into hatred of God and enjoyment of sin, at any point a person can extricate themself from the process, and in contrast to four generations, the consequences of the repentant child can affect his or her descendants for generation after generation after generation.

You never are a captive of your parents’ sin, nor can you rest in your parents’ righteousness. This is the point of the rest of Ezekiel 18.