The question is, ‘are children punished for the sins of their parents?’ According to the Bible, the answer is yes…and no. Exodus 20.5, Exodus 34.6-7 and Deuteronomy 5.9 all seem to suggest so. However, Deuteronomy 24.16 and Ezekiel 18.20 both say clearly that they do not. So which is it? I say both.
1 Corinthians 4.5 tells us that when Jesus comes to judge, we will not be judged by our actions, but by the motives of our heart. He will be concerned with why we did what we did. Judgment is very internal and more importantly personal. The outcome of judgment, therefore is also personal. Eternal security is personal. Eternal condemnation is person.
If eternal punishment is eternal, then how could one perceive God to punish on earth in any other way? It seems to me that God is concerned with the individual both eternally and temporally, so children don’t suffer for the sins of their fathers. At least not in such a direct sense.
We can’t throw out those first three verses, though! Why the paradox? Deuteronomy 24.16 and Ezekiel 18.20 are both personal statements having to do with the treatment of individuals. The context will reveal this is contrary for the other three.
Look at the wording in Exodus 20.5, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” This passage is looking at 3 and 4 generation families that ‘hate’ God. Often, in the days of Israel, there would be 3 or 4 generations alive at a time, all living in the same household or on the same land. Were the head of the household to begin to worship idols, the family would likely follow. It is specific that the sins of the Father, who led them into sin, are paid by all the generations because all hate Him. The sin was originally the father’s, but the sin has become their own and as Ezekiel said, “The soul who sins shall die” (18.20). Deuteronomy 5.9 is a quotation of this passage and has the same implications.
Exodus 34.6,7 uses the word ‘visiting’ to express how God punishes the third and fourth generations. It does not say that these people hate God as in the previous verse, yet they are still punished? This has to do with natural order. Think about last time you visited someone. You go for a period of time and leave. Another day, you visit again and then leave. This visiting that God does to the children is not outright punishment; it is a reminder not to fall into the same patterns of sin as the parents did.
We see this a lot today. When a parent falls to a sin such as drugs or fornication it usually leads to pain. (For many of us this is a categorically ‘smaller’ sin, but the concept still applies.) As parents, we need to remember that our kids will suffer through that pain with us. And not only that, but God will revisit that pain in the minds and often the lives of our children as they go through their lives. How many people claim to suffer depression or other disorders because of their parents sins? How many people suffer their entire lives from fetal alcohol syndrome?
In conclusions, children do not suffer directly for their parents sin, but they do suffer indirectly as a natural result of their parents sin. We live in a broken world where our sins effect many more people than ourselves. Our children will suffer for the sake of remembrance, even to the third and fourth generations.