Revisiting Biblical Claims on Generational Punishment

The 1950s in North Korea marked the rise of the songbun system in which citizens were ranked according to their allegiance to the North Korean government. By examining ancestors’ roles in the Korean War and their social status, the system inevitably created divide and discrimination within the community. It is hard to imagine anything of the sort finding its way into modern, civilized society. In fact, in America we pride ourselves on a justice system that assumes innocent until proven guilty. The generational system, however, hauntingly echoes the bestselling book in the world: the Bible. God proclaims: “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”[i] The same God that claims a forgiving and understanding spirit declares the sovereignty of past sins. As a child of South Korean immigrants, I find nothing more painfully invisible than the North Korean government and its generational punishment. But also as a child from a Christian household, I am disappointed to read this verse in Scripture—the very book I defend every day. Must I repent for and be punished for the sins of my ancestors? Am I my grandfather’s keeper?

The short answer is no; Christians are not held accountable for sins they do not commit. As written in Ezekiel, “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.”[ii] Here, the Bible makes it clear that people are accountable for their own actions and not for the actions of others. However, the portrait that Christianity paints of sin does not exclude the idea that the sins of one person can have consequences that are felt by other people. As inherently social creatures who are bound together through a network of relationships, humans corporately share in suffering the consequences of each others’ sins.

Nevertheless, while Christians are not punished for their ancestors’ sins, it is not because God tolerates such sins. When Moses’ people rebelled against the Lord, Moses affirms: “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’”[iii] This is yet again a clear indication of God’s intention to punish based on the sins of ancestors. When humans disobey God’s orders, he “does not leave the guilty unpunished.” And the guilty party seems to include more than the perpetrator.

Then, if God hates sin, do Christians escape punishment for their ancestors’ sins because they are worthy of that redemption? Christianity claims that when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, sin was introduced into the world. Their newfound understanding of the difference between good and evil made them accountable for the evil decisions they chose and thus made sin a possibility. Later on in the Bible, Jesus clarifies the modern definition of sin by examining topics such as lust, envy, and anger, warning his audience against such actions.[iv] Therefore, from a Christian viewpoint, one cannot say that he or she deserves forgiveness because everyone is susceptible to the same temptations and sins. As the apostle Paul writes: “The wages of sin is death.”[v] However, this idea that no one deserves redemption does not justify generational punishment.

As a species that depends so heavily on relationships, we cannot affirm that we are accountable only for ourselves. My decision to go to college is likely to affect my future grandchildren. If I were to go to jail, my entire family—living and unborn—would be affected. Thus, it is hard to argue that generational curses contradict or are even mutually exclusive with God’s love. To be human is to be connected, integrated into other peoples’ lives, and affected by the decisions that others make. Thus, because of this aspect of our natural humanity, the passing of sin’s impact through generations actually makes sense. 13th century Catholic theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas writes on the topic of generational punishment:

Consequently when a man is brought up amid the sins of his parents, he is more eager to imitate them, and if he is not deterred by their punishments, he would seem to be the more obstinate, and, therefore, to deserve more severe punishment.[vi]

God must address sins that pervade through generations because the influence of those sins still affects every individual in the family. The Bible describes this relational aspect of Christ’s body as such: “But God has put the body together…If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”[vii] When humans sin, they affect other people to whom they are connected. Thus, must Christians sit down and repent for their ancestors’ sins?

One of Moses’ mandates for the new land was: “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.”[viii] While this verse tells Christians that they will never pay for the sins of their ancestors, the earlier verses we examined in Leviticus and Numbers told us that Christians will be punished as the children of sinners and that they should repent. Here, we see what seems to be a contradiction; however, if we take a look at the Hebrew translation of “punishing” in Leviticus and Numbers, we see that the “punishing” translates to paqadh, which more accurately means to “inspect, review, number, deposit, or visit in the sense of making a call.”[ix] If we revisit the Exodus verse (“for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me”) in this light, we see a more accurate representation of God revisiting and overseeing the sins of past generations.[x] According to Scripture, God is concerned with the numerous iniquities that inevitably follow Christians because of humanity’s natural embeddedness; in the Christian framework, sin percolates both within and outside of the human.

While Moses’ commandment for the new land frees children from the sins of their ancestors, they still must deal with the rippling consequences of sins throughout generations. Children will not be put to death for their parents; in other words, children will not be directly punished for the sins of their ancestors. Rather, the subtle difference is that we suffer consequences of those sins even though we do not directly pay for those sins. Again, back to my earlier example; if I go to jail for stealing, my children will not go to jail with me, but they will have to live without a father. As another example, mankind still deals with the sins of Adam and Eve; people suffer every day with the consequences of sin running rampant on Earth because both Adam and Eve directly disobeyed orders from God and chose to be their own rulers. Their lack of trust and subsequent folly released sin into the world and affects us today.

Thus, the beauty of the Gospel is that despite our daily burdens and sins, God’s generational forgiveness is already strong enough to cover it all. Jesus died fully aware that his death would cover not only the sins of the past, but also the sins of the future. Christ’s sacrifice redeems more than just individual sins; it delivers families from the burdens of the past. Therein lies the difference between God’s definition of generational punishment and the North Korean songbun system: we are not doomed to pay and repent for the sins of our ancestors; rather, we are impacted by the consequences.

It is actually quite interesting to examine the particular way through which Christ provides that forgiveness. If one person’s sin can affect others through social connection, it makes sense that one person’s act of atonement can provide forgiveness through those same social connections. Christ came down from heaven as a human and died as a human to remedy a problem the same way it began: through our web of social influence. Paul writes: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[xi] That word “while” is particularly important because it explains that Christ atoned for sins while his beloved creations were still flawed humans; and if humans suffer the consequences of each others’ sins, they must receive forgiveness through another human: Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, the fact that our God is so wrathful and powerful demonstrates that he truly understands the full nature of sin and its detrimental effects in our lives. He possesses a just and righteous nature that tells us the serious and harmful nature of sin. Therefore, when he chooses to forgive all of humanity, despite the magnitude of sin, he reveals a deep and profound love for mankind. It is somewhat ironic that his wrath, in a way, serves to reveal his love, but it is also easy to recognize that a being who understands what it means to possess anger can understand what it means to be possess love.

The reality of Christianity is that God possesses strength in both wrath and love. We cannot truly admire his strength and love when we hide and deny his just nature. After all, God would not be all-powerful if he could not justly punish those who acted immorally. Both God’s love and strength are not meant to contradict each other; instead, they highlight each other. Safety from the dangers of evil is assured because God is so powerful. And therein lies the beauty in the gospel; that God the all-powerful and all-knowing protects his people with his infinite strength and wisdom by coming down to them. Because in all the human connections that believers can make on earth, the one connection that matters the most is that which consists of the one who loves the most.

 

i. Exodus 20:5 (NIV).
ii. Ezekiel 18:20 (NIV).
iii. Numbers 14:17-18 (NIV).
iv. See Matthew 5-7.
v. Romans 6:23 (NIV).
vi. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1-2. 87. 8. <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2087. htm#article8>.
vii. 1 Corinthians 12:24-27 (NIV).
viii. Deuteronomy 24:16 (NIV).
ix. Beth Moore, “Is There a ‘Generational Curse’ for Sin?” Today’s Christian Woman, May 2004, <http:// www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2004/may/ beth-moore-breaking-free-generational-curse-sin. html>.
x. Exodus 20:5 (NIV).
xi. Romans 5:8 (NIV).

Joshua Lee ’19 is from San Diego, California. He is a double major in Physics and Chemistry.

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