Practical Concerns and Questions
Does Scripture enshrine generational guilt?
All of us are sinners (Romans 3:23). What does this mean? Essentially, we are sinners by nature and choice. Each person has fallen short of God’s standard, which is set forth in the two great commands (Matt. 22:36-40). We do not love God, nor do we love others. The lack of these two great loves is reflected in our behavior.
What happens if sinful behavior is carried on for succeeding generations? Two passages from the Hebrew Scriptures speak to the severity of sin and the harshness of punishment. Both of these passages are found as the Hebrews began to receive the Law from God.
“You must not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers’ sin, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commands” (Exodus 20:5-6, HCSB).
“Then the Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed: Yahweh—Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7, HCSB).
Do these passage mean that God will pour out the consequences for one generation’s sins on the succeeding generations, even those who are innocent? The key here are the words “hate” and “love” in verses 5 and 6 of chapter 20. Those words are focused on the individual’s attitude toward God and His commands. The sin for which an individual would be punished was a hatred for God and His commandments.
The application of these passages comes from the later history of Israel. The two nations of Israel and Judah had nineteen and twenty kings respectively. Judah had only eight kings that could be considered good leaders who worshipped Yahweh. Israel’s kings were notoriously bad and unrepentant idol worshippers. Many of those kings, especially Ahab, are noted as being worse than their predecessors combined. Much of this can be traced back to King Solomon, who began the practice of accommodating the idols of his many wives and concubines. The succeeding generations were not innocent, they went into idol worship and depravity with open eyes, but it is easy to see where the chain began. The history of the two nations is certainly a pertinent application of a phrase attributed to John Wesley, “What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.”
How does this intersect with the pursuit of justice?
We are all sinners. If we make light of sin and its effects, succeeding generations will pick up the literal baton and run further with it. Sinners can also create systems which enshrine their sinful perspective. Racism is a terrible example of this. However, cycles can be stopped. As we have seen from our review of God’s attributes, He is just and forgiving toward the repentant sinner. The key is to change our perspective through the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives to love God and love others. Generational cycles are the work of individuals and can only be stopped by individuals.