The only good thing you ever did for the gals was get hit by that train!
As Father's Day approaches, I'm inclined to dwell on my role of father and wonder about how my life affects my descendants, particularly my children. I am inclined to ask the theological question, "Does God punish the children for the sins of their fathers?"
Upon examining the reasons God gives for obeying the Second Commandment, it would appear that He certainly does. In fact, we learn that our jealous God punishes the children for the sin of fathers to the 3rd and 4th generation of those that hate Him (Exodus 20:5). This appears to be an aspect of God’s activity of which He is not ashamed, but rather one of which He wants His people to be fully aware, so that it may influence their actions. The implication would be to not get involved in idolatry as it will bring punishment not only on the idolater, but also their children.
Later in Exodus we see this notion of God being generous with punishment to sinners and their children set in contrast to His goodness. He maintains His love to thousands forgiving wickedness and rebellion, but He does not leave the guilty unpunished. He punishes the children and their children, again to the 3rd & 4th generation (Ex 34:7).
As a warning against wickedness, it appears God is shown as being capable of extremes. As good as He can be to people, He can be bad to them to the same degree. We see here the potential gulf between being on His good side versus His "bad" side, which you don't want to get on. Moses cites this verse to God to remind Him that, although it is understood that God is capable of being very harsh, He can also exercise equally extreme love that forgives (Num 14:18).
Another scenario that seems to indicate God punishes children for the sin of their fathers is Korah’s rebellion (Num 16:1-35). In this situation, for the sin of primarily 3 individuals (vv. 1-2) who also incited others, many are killed. Included in the death toll are the wives, children, and little ones of the offenders (v. 27). In the passages examined previously, it was declared that God punishes children for the sins of their fathers and here is an example of that.
Conversely, it might be added that God is also prompted to love and mercy toward individuals who are wicked because of God’s past dealings with their righteous ancestors. This is seen at Sinai when God wants to exterminate the idolatrous Israelites, but Moses intercedes and appeals to God’s previous relations with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex 32:13).
At this point we might speculate as to why the households perished with the fathers in Korah’s rebellion; perhaps because the father is the head and representative of the household all under his authority can reap the consequences of his decisions. This would be similar to how God will punish a nation for the sins of its leaders. In biblical history, a good ruler’s actions brought blessings from God upon the nation as a whole. Likewise, a corrupt ruler’s actions brought God’s curses on the nation and not just the leader.
A theological parallel of individuals reaping the consequences of their representative can be seen in fallen humanity’s relation to Adam (Rom 5:12-21). All reaped the consequences of their representative’s actions. (Likewise, all those in Christ reap the benefits of Christ's actions and the two imputations are seen in full force.)
Although it perplexes the human intellect, it seems irrelevant to God whether or not we vote for or necessarily endorse the action of the representative. Israel experienced a prolonged drought that was the result of the sinfulness of Ahab (1 Kings17-18). Egypt suffered the plagues due to the hard heart of their leader (Exodus 7-12). Israel suffered a 3-year famine under David’s reign because of the past sin of former king Saul (2 Samuel 21:1). If fact, in this instance we again see children killed for the sin of their father/ancestor. 7 of Saul’s descendants are killed in order to appease God so that He would restore the land (2 Sam 21:14). And the list goes on of instances where groups suffered for the actions of leaders or representatives.
Although God punishes, or rewards, people for the actions of those who have authority over them, God does not seem limited to that when dealing with people. An example of this would be Achan. Achan was not the nation’s leader, but his stealing seemed to get the whole nation in trouble. In fact, the narrator declares that the Israelites acted unfaithfully (Joshua 7:1) even though it was only one man. Because of this one man’s sin that provoked God’s anger, about 3,000 men were routed in battle and 36 were killed (7:5). Joshua, the leader is told by God why the defeat occurred; it was because Israel had sinned (7:11-12), even though really only Achan sinned (7:1, 20). When it is finally revealed that Achan was the reason for the trouble, he and his children and belongings are destroyed (7:24).
From this episode we can see again that God will punish a family for the father’s actions, which would affirm the theory that God can punish people for the actions of their representative leader; but we also see that a group can be punished for the actions of one of its members where the battle was lost and men died. We might call this guilty by association.
God can treat a group based on the actions of its leaders (e.g., nations and leaders or families and fathers) or He can treat a group based on the actions of any one of its members. It would appear that God at times operates under the assumption of corporate solidarity. God may reward or punish a group as though it is a single entity rather than a group of individuals.
This is sort of a metonymy where the part is seen as the whole (e.g., saying that Israel had sinned when it was only one individual that sinned (Joshua 7:1, 20)). We operate under the same principles when we say things like “The United States won the gold medal in the pole vault.” Really only one person from the United States won the event, but the principle of corporate solidarity identifies him with the country of which he is a part. With God, the individual that motivates His punishment can be a recognized leader, but need not be.
Thus it would appear that God can and has punished children for the sins of their fathers, but children can also be punished for the sins of their nations leaders (past or present), as was the case with the Amalekite genocide (1 Samuel 15:2-3). Also, a group can be treated as some members in that group deserve (e.g., God’s willingness to spare Sodom if there were any ten righteous people (Gen 18:32)).
However strong the case may appear that God definitely punishes the children for the sins of the fathers or that He punishes according to corporate solidarity principles, Scripture is not that unilateral. In fact, there are a number of texts that seem to indicate that God operates under principles vastly opposed to notions such as corporate solidarity.
For example, Deuteronomy notes that Fathers are not to be put to death for their children, nor vice versa, but that each is to die for his own sin (24:16). This verse is cited as the reason Amaziah puts to death those that killed his father, but spares their children (2 Kings 14:6). Apparently, it is understood that this is a rule to live by, even for kings.
There seems to be a principle prohibiting people from implementing punishment, at least the death penalty, according to ideas of corporate solidarity or representation. Although a common theme in Scripture is that a parent is responsible for his/her children’s actions (e.g., a requirement to be an elder is to rule the household well and have children that obey him (1 Timothy 3:4)), apparently there are limits placed on how much blame is allowed to be placed on a parent or child.
The problem becomes clearer when we realize that God has executed the death penalty on a child for the sins of their parents, but He does not allow His people to do such a thing. It would appear that God has a double standard. He can do it, but they can’t. Although there are negative connotations associated with that idea, I would affirm that there is some truth there.
God has given humanity authority to mete out punishment, even the death penalty (Gen 9:6), but He has placed certain constraints and parameters on their exercising that authority. That is His divine prerogative to have different rules for how a sinful, fallen human with limited wisdom should act.
Although God at times operates according to corporate responsibility, it in no way can be inferred that one’s punishment must be a result of his ancestor’s sin. A passage that seemingly contradicts the allowance for corporate solidarity notes that everyone will die for his own sin (Jeremiah 31:30). In the context it appears that folks had begun to blame their poor circumstances on God’s judgment, but not judgment upon themselves. God was judging their ancestors and thus it wasn’t their fault. From the context it appears that the meaning is that people should no longer ascribe God’s judgment to someone else’s sin (i.e., their ancestors’), but rather individual responsibility is in order. They are wicked and are being punished because of what they have done.
However, this idea is taken up again in Ezekiel 18 and expounded upon by the Lord. Apparently the condition was similar in that people had the same saying about being punished for the sins of the fathers (see Jeremiah 31:29): “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge” (ESV). Based on God’s rebuke of this saying, one can infer it being used as a form of excuse to alleviate personal responsibility. He notes that they will no longer use this (18:3) because the soul that sins will die (18:4). God then goes into a lengthy discussion about a wicked father and a righteous son and how only the wicked father will be punished for his sin, and not the son. He again states, “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (v. 20).
The chapter culminates with an exhortation to repent (v. 32) and it appears that the message God is trying to communicate is one of personal responsibility and a necessity to reform. He tells them that He will judge each one according to his ways (v. 30). God is not allowing them to have any excuse for not striving for righteousness. There is no fatalism from which they cannot overcome. The message seems clear: “I judge each based on his own actions, not on what his parents did.”
This poses an obvious difficulty. On the surface this message from God is in direct conflict with His declarations that he punishes children for the sins of the parents as well as the obvious instances where that occurs. Does God punish the children for the sins of the fathers?
Did He only in the past, but no longer? It is true that most of the evidence showing a solidarity occurs earlier in the Scripture, but Jeremiah and Ezekiel are not that far apart chronologically and even in Lamentations we see the Israelites noting that their fathers sinned and are no more, yet they bear "their iniquities" (5:7).
This is not some sort of dispensational issue where God used to do it one way and now He does it another. There appear to be certain conditions where He operates with a mind to corporate solidarity, but other times He will not. What is the difference?
How can we predict when God will punish the children for the sins of the parents and when He won’t? Part of the problem arises in that we forget God is a personal Being. He is not a robot that operates in a predictable manner. Yet, He is not a random, capricious loose canon either. God cannot be confined in a box, but operates according to His good pleasure. It seems He can choose to operate in such a way to punish children if their parents sin, but not necessarily. Parental sin does not necessitate God’s punishing the children. One could theorize that, due to depravity, even the children are guilty of sinfulness and are not, therefore, innocently persecuted individuals. However, when God chooses not to punish the children, it is an expression of His grace, love, and mercy.
It would appear from Scripture that there is an individual accountability to God for one’s actions and this is the general mode of operation. Generally, God only punishes an individual for their sins, and not the children. However, that does not preclude His doing so in certain instances where He sees fit. For example, the instances where He does project the punishment to the children seem to be uncommon occurrences or times when God wants to firmly drive home a point. Perhaps the punishment is so severe to show how severe the transgression was (e.g., king David’s judgment of the sword never leaving his family in 2 Samuel 12:10).
Unfortunately, one can only speculate as to when and why God punish children for the sins of their fathers. In the texts where it is declared that God does indeed punish children for the sins of the fathers, it is the children of those “who hate Him” (Deut 7:10; Ex. 20:5). Perhaps the sin has to be a certain degree of sinfulness, but that can be somewhat ambiguous. As helpful as that might sound, God haters could be a term to describe any sinner who does any sinful act. If love is the motivation for obedience, then hate is logically the prompting for disobedience. Though one could make some stabs at what motivates God to act in such a way, it may prove futile and frustrating. God is not as predictable as we would like, but that’s His prerogative.
In response to the initial question, “Does God punish children for the sins of their fathers?” our answer is somewhat disheartening as we long for certainty. Sometimes He does; sometimes He does not. They are not mutually exclusive categories to God, as much as they seem to us. When and if He does is up to Him and anything beyond that is mere speculation.
We can establish that God will at times treat a group based on the actions of a member (leader or not) but He is not constrained to do so. This may lead him to treat a family based on the actions of the father, but He may choose not to as well. Either way, the emphasis in God’s declarations and actions seems to bring forth a message strongly urging His people not to sin.
First, He will punish a sinner and he/she could even die (Ezek 18:4). Second, a sinner could even bring punishment on their family (Exodus 20:5) or group of which they belong (Joshua 7:1, 4-5).
One might make the plea, “Even if you don’t care what happens to you, think of what might happen to your children” This is a message many parents need to think about today when they ponder the long lasting effects of their sin on they descendants (e.g., abuse, drug use, alcoholism, divorce, unwanted pregnancies, financial mismanagement, and other harmful behavioral patterns).
In other words, what might you be doing today that will have a lasting impact on your descendants?
So, while my kids may give me something tomorrow for Father's Day, I'm hoping that I don't leave them anything behind that will be detrimental, no outstanding debts that they may have to pay.