Ezekiel 18:20—Does God ever punish one person for another’s sin?

Problem: Ezekiel says clearly God does not punish the sons for their fathers’ sins, but that “the soul who sins shall die [for its own sins].” However, in Exodus 20:5 we are informed that God visits “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations.” These seem flatly contradictory.

Solution: Ezekiel is speaking of the guilt of the father’s sin never being held against the sons, but Moses was referring to the consequences of the fathers’ sins being passed on to their children. Unfortunately, if a father is a drunk, the children can suffer abuse and even poverty. Likewise, if a mother has contracted AIDS from drug use, then her baby may be born with AIDS. But, this does not mean that the innocent children are guilty of the sins of their parents.

Further, even if the Exodus passage implied that moral guilt was somehow also visited on the children, it would only be because they too, like their fathers, had sinned against God. Noteworthy is the fact that God only visits the iniquities of “those who hate” Him (Ex. 20:5), not those who do not (see also comments on Rom. 5:12).

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.