Posted by: Dan | February 28, 2008

The Sins of the Father (and a further thought on universalism)

You shall not worship [false gods] or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me.
~ Ex 20.5

This idea, that God punishes children for the sins of their parents, is one that is widely considered offensive — to both Christians, and those who stand outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, I have often heard people say, “Who wants to worship a God like that?”, assuming that God is some sort of vindictive asshole. Indeed, underlying this objection is a more general refusal of the idea of a God who engages in judgment and who punishes sin. In response, I want to begin with the general point and work my back from there.

In general, it seems to me that God does not actively punish sin. Rather, I believe that God usually punishes sin by passively allowing a person to suffer the consequences of his or her actions. Hence, in the OT, when Israel rebels against God, God permits Israel to chase after other gods, to look to foreign empires to save them (from other foreign empires!), and the result of this is that Israel is dominated by those empires — she is conquered and led away into exile. Further, in the NT, this seems to be the view that Paul presents in Ro 1.18-32: once people exhange the glory of God for that which is corruptible, God “gives them over” (a phrase Paul uses three times in this passage) to the consequences of that exchange. Stated simply, the punishment for chasing after that which is dehumanising is to be allowed to become less than human.

How then does this relate to our reading of Ex 20.5? I believe that this verse, and the others like it, make it clear that our actions don't simply impact ourselves, but impact others. I am not alone in causing myself to suffer because of my sinfulness; I also cause others to suffer. Hence, the seriousness of sin: when I sin, I cause others to bear the burden of my sinfulness.

Perhaps an examples will help. In my last post, I mentioned kids who suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), and the devestating consequences that that can have on the life of a child. Now, it is not as though God, as a vindictive asshole, has chosen to punish a child because his or her mother abuses alcohol; rather, it is that FAS is simply one of the consequences of alcohol abuse. God did not set out to punish the child, but in Ex 20.5, God does let us know that our sins will have a negative impact on our children. Other patterns of abuse confirm this — sexual, physical, and substance abuses have a way of being passed on from parents to children, and the abused frequently goes on to become an abuser.

However, as I noted at the beginning of this post, this is the way in which God passively punishes sin. When God actively responds to sin, he tends to favour another method: forgiveness. Hence, the full weight of our punishment for sin is revealed on the cross of Christ, and the result of the cross is our forgiveness. Thus, I can't help but wonder if God's final active response to sin — the return of Christ, the coming of God, and the Day of Judgment — will also be a great (and terrible!) act of forgiveness. On that day, God will no longer hand us over to the consequences of our decisions — indeed, there will be no other Power for God to hand us over to, for Sin, Death, Hades, and all other powers in their service will have been defeated! Thus, rather than handing us over, I suspect that God will welcome us home — all of us.

Hence, as we await that day we have, through the victory of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, received a wonderful opportunity. Although we know we have been forgiven, we still carry the burden of the sins of others. However, we can now embody and proclaim forgiveness and, in doing so, bear those sins away.

Maranatha!

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