As we've been reading the Bible together in a year at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, that awful question has been suggested by our reading of the experiences of David, Israel's greatest king, and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-12:17). While Bathsheba's husband was off in battle, David slept with Bathsheba. She became pregnant and to cover up his misdeed, David arranged for Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, to die at the front. Bathsheba married David and the newlyweds then awaited the birth of their child. Through the prophet Nathan though, God told David He was not pleased with things David and Bathsheba had done and that the child Bathsheba would soon birth would die as punishment for their sins.*
I can't begin to explain this strange incident. So, I won't try.
But I don't believe that God causes suffering or death to come to the children of people who sin.
If that were so, every child would suffer and die in their cribs.
That's because we're all sinners who, whether in our minds or in our actions, sinfully violate the will of God.
But I believe that we can turn to the Bible to help us wrestle with this question.
The Bible isn't a how-to manual filled with glib bullet points. Individual passages or chapters of Scripture aren't to be taken in isolation to explain the way God operates. When considering any question, we need to remember a principle set out by Martin Luther, the Reformer: "Let Scripture interpret Scripture."
The Bible is a library of sixty-six books inspired by God over thousands of years. The whole library must be considered when facing tough questions about God, life, and ourselves.
So, what does the whole library of Scripture tell us that might help us understand whether children suffer or die because of the sins of their parents?
One passage that might be brought up is Exodus 34:7. There, God told Moses that while He forgave repentant sinners, He would visit "the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children to the third and fourth generation." But I don't think this passage is relevant to this discussion. The subject of the Exodus passage isn't whether God causes suffering or death to the children of sinners.
In it, God is simply saying that when parents persist in sin--such as failing to honor God as God, for example, or abusing their children verbally, physically, or psychologically--it has an impact on their kids and grandkids.
The words from Exodus are a call and a command to exercise what might be called "intergenerational ethics," recognizing that our sins can have a terrible impact on subsequent generations. Any counselor involved with family therapy will underscore the importance of this warning.
Another Biblical vignette that might merit consideration appears in Genesis 22. There, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Then, just as Abraham is about to do this, God provides a ram to be sacrificed in Isaac's place. God directs Abraham, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
"What kind of a sicko God tells someone to kill his kid?" a good friend asked me years ago. That's a good question, especially if the passage is seen in isolation.
But in fact it was told to the people of ancient Israel to draw a contrast between Yahweh, their God, the God of the Bible, and the false idols worshiped by the surrounding culture. The false gods commanded the sacrifice of children. This was reprehensible to the God of Israel and He repeatedly forbade His people from engaging in such barbaric practices.
The lesson Abraham learned was that God will always provide a way to reconciliation and peace with God--Jesus later claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, the only means needed for reconciliation with God. God will never command the sacrifice of a child because of someone's sins, God was telling Abraham.
This truth is further underscored by a passage from the farewell discourse of ancient Israel's leader, Moses, in Deuteronomy. Through Moses, God says:
Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death. (Deuteronomy 24:16)This command is reiterated frequently in Scripture:
[Speaking of Amaziah, a king of Judah] But he did not put to death the children of the murderers; according to what is written in the book of the law of Moses, where the Lord commanded, "The parents shall not be put to death for the children, or the children be put to death for the parents; but all shall be put to death for their own sins."** (2 Kings 14:6, also 2 Chronicles 25:4)The prophet Jeremiah upholds this same principle when he writes:
...all shall die for their own sins...(Jeremiah 31:30)Through another prophet, Ezekiel, God says:
"Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine; it is only the person who sins that shall die. (Ezekiel 18:4)
"The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of the parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own." (Ezekiel 18:20)***But the question before us--whether children suffer or die as punishment for their parents' sins is answered definitively by God-in-the-flesh, Jesus. Check out this familiar incident from Jesus' ministry (italics and bold print are mine):
As he [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." (John 19:1-3)I don't believe that Jesus here means that God caused the man to be born blind, but that his blindness was an opportunity for the power of God to be revealed. Our weakness and need are always opportunities for God's grace to bring us strength and peace with God and ourselves. But more importantly for our question, you see, Jesus repudiates any notion that God causes the children of sinners to suffer because of their parents' sins.
There are lots of questions I may want to ask God when, one day, I see Him face to face. But I'm persuaded from what I know of God through Christ and from the overwhelming evidence in the Bible that God doesn't bring calamity punish the sins of parents through the suffering or death of their kids.
That children suffer in a world weighed down by its alienation from God is a tragic reality. My heart aches for every parent who must watch their children suffer.
But, parents, if God has an issue with you and your sins, He'll deal with you. He won't punish your children.
*In 2 Samuel, the story of David and Bathsheba is seen as the beginning of a downward spiral in David's reign. But when the story of David's kingship is told again in 1 Chronicles, the writer shows no interest in this incident from David's personal life. For him, the moral deterioration of David's reign started when, in his official capacity, he ordered a census of his people. (More on this another time, maybe.)
**More on capital punishment another time, maybe. One sticky wicket at a time, please.
***"For the wages if sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). All sin and deserve death. But forgiveness and new life come to those who repent (that is, repudiate sin) and believe in (trust in) Christ. God only holds us accountable for our own sins, not those of others. And the power of sin to kill us is erased as a free gift for all who trust in Christ.