Are generational sins and curses real?

Tyler S. Ramey

Generational sin is the idea that in some way a person bears a degree of responsibility and direct personal consequence for certain sins committed by others, usually a genetic predecessor such as a parent or distant relation.  There are some important distinctions to made here. 

Generational sin is often regarded as a generational curse.  A generational curse is the idea that ancestral, or genetic, sin incurs a penalty that is visited upon present generations.  Typically, blood relatives, mothers, fathers, and grandparents are the relations most often of concern.  However, believers in generational sin (and any accompanying generational curses) do not exempt very distant ancestors from examination and scrutiny. 

If real or imagined evidence indicates that a blood relative e.g., a father or great-great grandfather, engaged in particular sin for which repentance may not have been secured, a curse resulting from that sin is purportedly passed to future generations.  Incidentally, the connection here need not be through a blood relative, but anyone with whom a significant familial connection exists will do.  This supposed curse can manifest in various ways, but it is believed that it often reveals itself through a repetition of the sin by a later generation, or is experienced by certain demonic intrusions or influences.

The idea of generational sins and curses is derived partly from Exodus 20:5 (cf., Ex. 34:7; Jer. 32:18).  Moses had just descended from the top of Mount Sinai to deliver the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel.  The verse is within the context of the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol . . . for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”  Here we have what appears to be biblical support for generational sins and curses.  But this popular notion has serious biblical hurdles. 

Scriptures used to support generational sins are often rendered in part and in spite of scriptures that clearly indicate a different state of affairs.  Ezekiel 18 reveals that God holds the individual solely responsible for his own sin, and that a wicked man’s son “will not die for his father’s sin” but his “father will die for his own sin” (vv. 17-18).  Ezekiel’s theme in this chapter is clear.  He further declares that “The soul who sins is the one who will die” and that “the son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.”  In addition, he declares that “the righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him” (v. 20).  It is here where we discover the shortcoming of passages used to justify generational sins and curses.

Proponents of these sins and curses most often fail to quote adequately the passage to which they appeal.  For example, the message contained in Exodus 20:5 is contrasted by the following verse which says God shows “love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  Likewise, Jeremiah 32:18 says of God “You show love to thousands but bring punishment for the fathers’ sins into the laps of their children after them.”  Here, again, we have what appears to be support for generational sins and curses.  Note:  Keep in mind that supposed generational curses can manifest as a repetition of sin.  So, verses that seem to more clearly support the notion of a generational curse are regarded as supporting both generational sins and curses.

If God holds individuals responsible for their own sin and blesses those who keep his commandments and love him, how is it, then, that he punishes children for the sins of their fathers?

God “punishes” in the form of the cause and effect relationship between sin and its results.  Just like the law of gravity (drop a rock, it will fall to the ground), sin commands certain effects.  Children are punished for the sins of the fathers through the natural consequences of sin.  For example, children no doubt suffer the consequences of a drunken, abusive father.  They may become drunkards and abusers themselves, or they may suffer the consequences of an absent father whose passion for alcohol is more important to him than his children’s needs.  These children may well continue this pattern of behavior and pass along the “punishment,” or consequences of sin, to their children, then their children, and their children, etc.  But there is hope.

God has told us that he shows love to those who love him and keep his commandments. “If a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die” (Ez. 18:21).  We are not bound to or cursed by someone else’s sin.  It is, as Ezekiel said, “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (v. 20).

Final Note:  An interesting theological topic is the notion of genetic predisposition to certain sins.  It may well be that a propensity for given sins can be passed genetically.  This does not, however, excuse sin or in any way exonerate individuals who are engaged in behaviors clearly antithetical to God’s Word.

"Correctly handle the word of truth" (II Tim. 2:15)