Does God punish innocent children to the third and fourth generations for the sins of the fathers?
Last week, someone asked several questions about children being punished for their parents’ wrongdoings, including whether events in Jewish history were examples of this and whether he should be concerned that he’ll suffer for his parents’ and grandparents’ sins.
What did God mean when he told the Israelites he would punish the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation?
The second of the Ten Commandments says this:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; 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 of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:3-6
If the head of a household worshipped false gods, typically his descendents would join in that idolatry. The successive generations would be punished for committing the sins they learned from parents. (Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; and Jeremiah 32:18 are similar.) Douglas K. Stuart wrote:
In other words, God will not say, “I won’t punish this generation for what they are doing to break my covenant because, after all, they merely learned it from their parents who did it too.’ Instead, God will indeed punish generation after generation (‘to the third and fourth generation’) if they keep doing the same sorts of sins that prior generations did. If the children continue to do the sins their parents did, they will receive the same punishments as their parents.”
Stuart goes on to point out that “‘Third and fourth’ is idiomatic in Hb. for ‘whatever number’ or ‘plenty of.’” 
That this verse does not mean innocent children will be punished is supported by Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.”
Is the Babylonian captivity an example of the sins of the fathers being visited upon children?
The children who were exiled or born in exile endured the consequences of their parents’ sins: they could not live in the Promised Land during the exile. Moses warned of this consequence for persistently rejecting God, but also promised when a generation confessed their sins and their fathers’ sins, God would restore them to the land (Leviticus 26:39-42).
During Babylon’s siege against Judah, people quoted a proverb showing their belief that they were being punished for their ancestors’ sins, not their own. Ezekiel 18 addressed their error at length:
The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: ‘The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die. Ezekiel 18:1-4
God said if a man is righteous, he will live (18:5-9). If he has a wicked son, the son will die (18:10-13). If the wicked man has a righteous son, the son will live (18:14-18). The Israelites complained that the righteous son should share his father’s guilt, but God said no, only the wicked man will die for his wickedness (18:19-20). Additionally, if a wicked man repents, he will live, but if a righteous man becomes wicked, he will die (18:21-29).
Through Jeremiah God said that after the exile, people would finally stop quoting that proverb and realize people die for their own sin (Jeremiah 31:29-30).
Despite the people’s wish to believe that they themselves didn’t deserve punishment, in actuality, the generations had increased in wickedness as they learned their parents’ sins and added to them until God finally said, “Enough.” The exiled generation ignored the prophets’ warnings against child sacrifice to Molech, the highly sexualized worship of Canaanite gods, gross mistreatment of the poor, and blatant injustice.
Note that the exile happened in three stages: 605 BC, 597 BC, and 586 BC (when Jerusalem was destroyed). The exiles returned in 536 BC, just 50 years after the last deportation. Many first generation children saw the restoration.
Is the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 an example of children being punished for their parents having crucified Jesus 40 years earlier?
No, the Jews that died in the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome were not being punished for Jesus’ crucifixion, but for their own rejection of Jesus as Messiah.
Moses had warned the Israelites that God would one day raise up a prophet like him and they must listen to him, or they would be called to account (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18, 19). The apostles reminded the Jews of this and warned them they would be cut off if they rejected Jesus as Messiah (Acts 3:22-23).
In AD 66, Jews in the provinces of Galilee and Judah revolted against Rome. They were led by the Zealots, a Jewish sect which taught the Messiah would come when the Jews were righteous enough to deserve the Messiah; the righteousness they demanded included rejecting all other human governance. They refused to pay taxes and assassinated Roman officials.
An initial victory led many Jews to join the Zealots in their revolt. Those who revolted rejected Jesus as Messiah and sought from among their own a Messiah who would establish an earthly kingdom free from Roman rule. As Rome crushed the revolt, the Zealots assassinated Jews who didn’t give them their full support, preventing them from surrendering. Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 and finished putting down the revolt in AD 75. The Jews entered exile again.
Are we destined to endure divine retribution of some sort of pain, suffering, and physical death here on earth because of some of the sins committed by our fathers or grandfathers?
No, absolutely not. We sometimes suffer the consequences of our parents’ sins: a gambler may lose his house and plunge his family into poverty. We sometimes learn and repeat the sins our parents teach us, bringing more consequences and even discipline. But we won’t endure divine retribution for our ancestors’ wickedness.
Besides, “in Christ” all of this is irrelevant anyway because when we’re “born again,” we’re born into God’s family.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. ~2 Corinthians 5:17
- Douglas K. Stuart, New American Commentary – Volume 2: Exodus, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 454.↩