CLAIM: It is wrong to hold someone responsible for the sins of their father. And yet, God clearly states that he will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Ex. 20:5). Why would God punish people, who did not directly sin against him?
RESPONSE: The clear teaching of Scripture is that we are judged for our own deeds. The overarching teaching of the Bible is that God will judge each person according to their own deeds (Mt. 16:27; Lk. 12:47-48; Jn. 5:29: Dan. 12:2; Rom. 2:6; Rev. 20:12; Ezek. 18:19-20; Eph. 2:3). A principle of hermeneutics is to interpret the “unclear in light of the clear.” These passages clearly teach that we are judged for our own sin –not someone else’s:
(Ezek. 18:19-20) As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was not good among his people, behold, he will die for his iniquity. 19 Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. 20 The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.
(Deut. 24:16) Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.
For this reason, Exodus 20:5 must refer to the consequences of sin. We see this for example in 2 Kings 17:41, where we read, “While these nations feared the Lord, they also served their idols; their children likewise and their grandchildren, as their fathers did, so they do to this day.” Sin has a corporate effect on others. In other words, this refers to the passive wrath of God—not his active wrath. For instance, if a mother smokes crack while pregnant, it will affect her kid. Abuse can affect the 3rd and 4th generation.