Understanding the nature of God’s interaction with man is no small task. The sincere Bible student often comes across things in the biblical text that are puzzling. Others, who are perhaps somewhat less sincere, twist these initially puzzling passages “to their own destruction” (as described in 2 Peter 3:16). One such idea that has been abused is the alleged contradiction between how Jehovah dealt (and still deals) with the children of sinful people. Steve Wells, author of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, insists that there is a discrepancy in the Bible regarding this subject. He lists Exodus 20:5, which states: “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.” Wells then presents Ezekiel 18:20 as a contradictory verse: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself ” (Wells, 2003).
Is there a legitimate contradiction between these verses? Or, to pose the question differently, “Is there any possible way that both these statements can be true?” The fact of the matter is that both statements can be true, without a contradiction occurring. What Mr. Wells and others who twist these verses into an alleged contradiction do not recognize is that there is a difference between bearing the guilt of a parent, and suffering negative physical and emotional consequences due to that parent’s bad decisions.
It often is the case that the children of wicked people suffer terribly. Sometimes these children suffer because the parent physically or emotionally abuses them (in direct violation of Scripture; cf. Matthew 7:12; Colossians 3:21). At other times, the child suffers as a result of the parent’s irresponsible behavior. For instance, suppose a man addicted to gambling wastes his salary on gambling, instead of using it to feed his family. As a result, his children suffer hunger, shame, and poverty.
Yet, even though the children of sinful people often suffer physical consequences, they do not inherit the sin of those parents. The book of Jeremiah provides an interesting commentary on this subject. In Jeremiah 16:1-6, God told Jeremiah that the prophet should not take a wife and/or have children in the land of Israel. God explained His reasoning to Jeremiah as follows: “For thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place.... ‘They shall die gruesome deaths; they shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried, but they shall be as refuse on the face of the earth’ ” (16:3-4). Why was this going to happen? Wells is quick to refer to this chapter, especially verses 10 and 11 where the children of Israel pose the question, “Why has the Lord pronounced all this great disaster against us” (vs. 10)? Wells then records Jeremiah’s answer: “ ‘Because your fathers have forsaken Me,’ says the Lord” (vs. 11). Wells, however, does not cite the very next verse (12), which states: “And you have done worse than your fathers....”
These Israelites were suffering due to the sins of their fathers—and due to their own sins. Their children were going to die gruesome deaths. The skeptic is quick to seize upon this fact, and demand that any time innocent children die, it is a travesty against justice that a loving God never would permit (a fallacious idea that I have refuted elsewhere; see Butt, 2004).
Do children sometimes die horrible deaths due to their parents’ wrong decisions? Absolutely. The Israelites had adopted the practice of sacrificing their own children to a false god named Baal (Jeremiah 19:5). The iniquity of the parents, then, can be visited upon the children in the form of physical suffering. But do those children bear the guilt of that sin? Absolutely not! Ezekiel wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20, emp. added).
Notice the words soul and guilt. Does the Bible ever insinuate, for example, that a child is guilty of idolatry because his parents were idolatrous? No (read Matthew 18:3-5; Luke 18:16-17). Bearing the guilt of sin is altogether different than bearing the physical consequences of the actions of others. As is often the case, the skeptic has confused the two, and has alleged a biblical contradiction where, in fact, none exists. This is yet another example in which the allegation against the Bible fails, but “the Word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Peter 1:25).
Butt, Kyle (2004), “The Skeptic’s Faulty Assumption,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2230.
Wells, Steve (2001), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible [On-line], URL: http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/1cor/index.html.