Sometimes we pay a high price for the mistakes and sins of our parents and our own—not because of God’s punishment but because of nature’s implacable laws. Scripture defends individual responsibility, and God, who is merciful and forgiving and wants our happiness, is not to be blamed for the evil we experience and cause to others
Do we inherit the sins of our fathers, and should we be held accountable for them? Some biblical texts (Gen 3: 15–19. 22–24; Ex 20: 5; 34: 6–7; Dt 5: 9; Nm 14: 18; 2 Sam 21: 1–9; Jer 32: 18) seem to indicate that God does in fact punish us for things we do not do. Giving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the Lord commands the people:
FR JOSEPH REBELO, COMBONI MISSIONARY“You shall not bow down before them [idols] or serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation” (Ex 20: 5). A psalmist implores: “Do not hold against us the iniquities of our forefathers; let your compassion move quickly ahead of us, for we have been brought very low” (Ps 79: 8).
Other Old Testament texts, however, repudiate the idea of punishment devolving on later generations. The principle of individual responsibility is often affirmed: “Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for one’s own crime shall a person be put to death” (Dt 24: 16). It also appears in the prophet Jeremiah: “In those days they shall no longer say, ‘The parents ate unripe grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,’ but all shall die because of their own iniquity: the teeth of anyone who eats unripe grapes shall be set on edge” (Jer 31: 29–30). And through Ezekiel (18: 2–4) God swears that the known proverb won’t be repeated “for all life is mine: the life of the parent is like the life of the child, both are mine. Only the one who sins shall die!” Later on, the prophet returns to the same principle: “Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son. Justice belongs to the just, and wickedness to the wicked” (Ez 18: 20).
The New Testament follows the same line of thought and stresses that each person is individually accountable and will be judged for what he/she personally does (Mt 12: 36–37; Rom 2: 6; 2 Cor 5: 10; 1 Pet 1: 17).
Sinfulness is our inherited human condition. The ‘original sin’ is not to blame for all our troubles, diseases and death as the rabbinic theology of original sin has done, influencing St Paul and other biblical writers. The accounts of Genesis chapters 1–11 are etiological stories meant to explain the world, hardships and mortality. Humans are creatures, fragile and limited. It is therefore natural that they have to labour, suffer and die. Paradise is not where we come from, but our destiny, thanks to Jesus’ saving death. We were not created for immortality but rather for resurrection, which we will enjoy by imitating the selflessness of Jesus.
Shall we still believe that God visits “the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations”? In other words, must we accept that children inherit the consequences of their parents’ sins and must pay for their mistakes? It is undeniable that all of our ancestors have committed sins and their influence definitely carries on through the generations to breed more evil. The children of drunkards, drug addicts, AIDS patients and so on, may suffer in their lives because of their parents’ mistakes and sins. Besides, some genetic disorders are inherited, and are passed down from the parents’ genes. According to the specialists, cystic fibrosis, haemophilia, sickle cell anaemia and Down’s syndrome are some inherited diseases. Their transmission is a result of nature’s laws.
God does not punish
But can the resulting suffering be attributed to God’s punishment? Generally, in the texts in which it is said that God inflicts punishment… “down to the third and fourth generation”, the intended emphasis is on God’s mercy which extends “to the thousandth generation”. Quoting an example may suffice: “So the LORD passed before him and proclaimed: the LORD, the LORD, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity, continuing his love for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but bringing punishment for their parents’ wickedness on children and children’s children to the third and fourth generation!” (Ex 34: 6–7; cf. Dt 5: 9–10).
Later generations may suffer the punishing effects of the sins of earlier generations, but not the guilt. God is not vengeful; on the contrary, He is merciful and forgiving. It would be against His very nature to punish—especially the innocents. The image of God as a retaliator is an anthropomorphism that reflects a primitive understanding of His revelation. A statement attributed to St Augustine says: “God always forgives, man sometimes forgives, but nature never forgives.”
Jesus Himself denies that people’s troubles are a punishment for their parents’ sins as it was commonly believed. In the episode of the man born blind, Jesus’ disciples asked Him: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answered: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (Jn 9: 2–3).
On another occasion (Luke 13:1–5), people mention to Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. He replied: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?” Then, to stress the need for individual repentance for sin, Jesus refers to 18 people who died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them. He challenges His listeners saying: “Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?” The people killed were innocent victims of a calamity which was due to no fault of their own.
Our sins kill
Jesus’ only aim is to encourage repentance and personal conversion. He does not consider what we call ‘social sin’, i.e. the social dimensions of sin. In the latter case, it had to do with the tower’s faulty construction or design or the lack of proper maintenance over the years. The fact is that its fall killed innocent people. Even personal sins have consequences on other peoples’ lives. Reckless behaviour, unhealthy lifestyles, carelessness, drug abuse, gambling, violence, thirst for power and profit, injustice… cause unhappiness and sometimes death.
The late Pope John Paul II defined ‘social sin’ as “the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear, or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world, and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of a higher order” (Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16).
In his encyclical on social justice, the Pope prefers to talk about ‘the structures of sin’ as “the sum total of the negative factors working against a true awareness of the universal common good, and the need to further it” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 36). Then, he goes on to explain that they “are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove” (SRS, 36).
Considering today’s world and particularly our southern African context, what are our worst social evils? Polluting the environment; racial discrimination; social indifference; gender violence; sorcery; greed and corruption; trafficking of persons; idolatry of money and technology. Unfortunately, this list can easily go on and on.
“Paradise is not where we come from, but our destiny, thanks to Jesus’ saving death. We were not created for immortality but rather for resurrection, which we will enjoy by imitating the selflessness of Jesus.”
“God is not vengeful; on the contrary, He is merciful and forgiving. It would be against His very nature to punish—especially the innocents.”
“Even personal sins have consequences on other peoples’ lives. Reckless behaviour, unhealthy lifestyles, carelessness, drug abuse, gambling, violence, thirst for power and profit, injustice… cause unhappiness and sometimes death.”