Please comment on so-called generational curses found in the Bible. Are they in force today? Were they fair to those whose parents sinned?
First let me point out that many Scripture passages and principles, often those found in the Old Testament, can be taken beyond their intended or original meaning. What is portrayed in Scripture as natural consequences of sin in general among the ungodly, for example, can be construed as God’s personal judgment or condemnation. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 5:8), though Christians can and do sin and can and do receive chastening from the Lord.
In Exodus 20:4 and 5 we read,
You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. 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.
Here we have as part of the Ten Commandments a prohibition of idolatry and it is restated in Deuteronomy 5:8 and 9.
Idolatry is a serious sin, and it ruined Israel in the Old Testament. But lest we point fingers at the Israelites or the “heathen” en masse, we must recognize the problem in our society, or in society of any time, for that matter. Colossians 3:5 says that covetousness is idolatry! The ancient Greeks and Romans had various gods, such as Aphrodite, the goddess of sex. They idolized what these gods represented, and so do elements of our society. But the point is that idolatry is serious, in part, because of ifs consequences. The Bible seems to indicate that idolatry is very hard to root out and thus contaminates succeeding generations of those who practice it.
Nevertheless the Bible also teaches that an individual is responsible to God for his or her own actions. Another passage in Deuteronomy states,
Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin (24:16).
That might seem to contradict this idea that children, even three or four generations after a certain father’s living on earth, are punished by God. How do we properly reconcile the two thoughts?
Again it is the matter of the natural consequences of sin in people that one forefather can influence, versus the direct judgment of Almighty God upon an unbelieving individual. The one who hates God (an unbeliever) will be judged for his or her sin. But the consequences of that person’s sin may be experienced by his or her descendants.
I have often heard as an illustration of this point the contrast between the descendants of the great preacher Jonathan Edwards and the descendants of a certain prominent unbeliever. Without suggesting that all of the descendants of either man were either born again or unregenerate, we can understand that the illustration points to consequences. Edwards, who perhaps influenced the American independence more than anyone else through the Great Awakening, was a truly great man of God and a father of godly children. Of 929 descendants studied, 430 became preachers, 86 became university professors, 13 became university presidents, 75 were writers, 5 became congressmen, 2 became senators, and 1 became a vice president of the nation. None of Edwards’ descendants cost the government a penny. The other man refused to take his children to church even when they wanted to attend. Of 1,026 descendants who were researched, 300 went to prison for an average term of 13 years, 192 were prostitutes, and 680 were admitted alcoholics. These descendants cost the government in excess of $420,000.
Both Edwards’ and the other man’s descendants were responsible for their own sins and could neither blame nor take credit for the spiritual state of their forefathers. Another example might be a mother who bears a child having some type of fetal drug syndrome. Only the mother is going to answer to God for her sin, but the child lives with the consequences of the mother’s sin. Life certainly is unfair and we pity people scarred by the sins of others. But none of us has to be judged for the sin of these people. In that determination, God is just.
In considering the matter of “sins of the fathers,” we also must note the next verse of both the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages:
But showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10).
In all generations there is salvation, forgiveness with God, and mercy to those who purpose to follow. God and keep His commandments, regardless of what their fathers or other ancestors were like.
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