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Religious Tolerance logo

The transferability of sin: punishing
the innocent for the sins of the guilty


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Conflicting quotations:

bulletExodus 20:5: "Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them (idols), nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." 1
bulletRetired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong: "Any God, who would make your daughters suffer in order to punish you is a demon, unworthy of your worship or indeed of your service." Bishop Spong was responding to a father who asked if God was punishing him "for a selfish and sinful past" by making his daughter mentally retarded. 2
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About the transferability of sin:

Most secularists and followers of the major religious traditions active in North America believe that a person is responsible for their own sinful behavior, and not for the sins of others. They believe that in a just society:

bullet If a person robs a bank or commits murder, the state does not persecute that person's father, children, or neighbors. Also a person cannot be held responsible for an ancestor's bad behavior. To blame and/or punish a person for a criminal act which occurred before they were even born is particularly ludicrous, and profoundly immoral.
bullet It is irrational and immoral to hold all persons of a given race responsible for the actions of a single person of that race. This also applies to categories other than race, such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, gender identity, nationality, language, religion, color, etc.
bulletOf all crimes, genocide is considered the most reprehensible, because it typically involves killing many or all members of a given race or culture or religion -- often including the innocent youths, children, infants and newborns -- for the real or imagined sins of adults.

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Comments on the transferability of sin:

Professor Gregory Millema of the philosophy Department at Calvin College describes that, in North America, sin is considered a personal matter and does not spread throughout a culture:

"People in contemporary Western culture think in terms of individual rights, individual liberties, and, presumably, individual responsibilities. According to this characterization of contemporary Western culture, the individual bears moral responsibility for what he or she has done. Moral responsibility is a personal, individual matter, and we should never be expected to bear responsibility for the wrongdoings of another (unless we have agreed to do so voluntarily, as when we take responsibility for the actions of our child, our subordinate, or our senile parent). Moral responsibility is not something which can somehow spread spontaneously through a whole group of people; it is confined to each individual exactly in proportion to what the individual has done or failed to do." 3,4

Retired Bishop John. Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church, USA described a church service in his parish church during 2007-JUN. He was distressed when a passage from 2 Samuel 12 was read to the congregation. It describes a prophecy by the prophet Nathan that as punishment for David's adulterous affair with Bathsheba and David's subsequent murder of Bathsheba's husband, God would cause David and Bathsheba's infant son to sicken and die.

Bishop Spong wrote:

"One of the three lessons from the Bible that Sunday was so dreadful that I first cringed as I heard it read, then I railed against it silently. What I really wanted to do was to shout loudly: 'That is not true.' ... When lessons are read from the Bible the reader normally concludes the reading with the words: 'This is the Word of the Lord!' to which the people dutifully respond like well-trained sheep: 'Thanks be to God.' ... All of these well practiced liturgical acts were designed over the years to surround the Bible with authority, to enhance the power of scripture and to train the minds of the lay people to revere the Bible. Christians have been taught consciously and subconsciously not to confront or to challenge something for which God's authorship is being claimed. ..."

I am not now and have not been for years prepared to acknowledge that the words of the Bible are in fact the words of God in any literal sense. In worship, therefore, when I hear a biblical passage read that portrays God as a kind of monster, whose behavior would not be recognized as moral by any standard today, I am offended. ..."

That approach to the Bible must be challenged as must the debilitating message that so many hear in church. The Bible is filled with dark, unlearned themes that in the hands of 'the righteous' give rise to an abusive use. It has in its pages what I have called: 'The Sins of Scripture.' It is time for the Christian Church to say that publicly, openly, honestly.  5,6

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The Bible vs. modern culture:

In most cultures, sin is attributed to the sinner, and is not transferable to another person or group of people. This belief forms the foundation of the world's justice systems. Modern secular and religious moral codes affirm the thought expressed in Deuteronomy 24:16 which states that children are not to be executed for the sins of their fathers, or vice versa:

"The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin."

Many would reject the concept that the children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of a person who hates God are to be punished. This thought is found in Exodus 20:5, which is part of the most frequently cited version of the Ten Commandments:

"Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them (idols), nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." 1

Note that this passage implies that God will punish the descendents of people who bow down before idols by directly transferring punishment for sin among three or four generations of descendents, even though the latter are innocent of that sin.

This concept mentioned in the Ten Commandments is found throughout the Bible:

  • There are many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures which conflict with modern religious and secular codes of morality. Many events in ancient Hebrew history are described in which either:
    • Sin is transferred from a guilty party or parties to one or more innocent individuals.
    • A racially or religiously motivated genocide resulted in the deaths of uncounted numbers of children, infants and newborns who had not reached the age of accountability, and other innocent persons.

  • We have also found examples in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) in which sin is transferred from guilty individuals to an innocent person or persons.

The transfer of sin is described as having been done:

  • Directly by God, or
  • By humans under instruction from God, or
  • By following laws and rules implemented by God, or
  • By the initiative of one person who curses one or more others.

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Attempts to justify the transmission of sin:

Some theologians have attempted to defuse this basic theme wherever it appears in the Bible by explaining that God or God's laws had nothing to do with the transmission of sin from generation to generation and punish the innocent. Rather, they suggest that the Bible was commenting on how sins are sometimes genetically or environmentally caused. For example, a child of an alcoholic has a high probability of suffering from alcoholism later in life. A male child raised in an atmosphere of family violence may become abusive himself when he reaches adulthood.

However, this interpretation does not fit most of the instances of sin transmittal as explained in the Bible.

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  1. From the King James Version of the Bible.
  2. "Bishop Spong Q&A," Beliefnet, 2005-JUN-08.
  3. Gregory F. Millema, "Collective Responsibility: Introduction", Rodopi, (1997). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  4. Online at:
  5. J.S. Spong, "This is Not the Word of the Lord," A New Christianity for a New World series, 2007-JUN-27.
  6. J.S. Spong, "The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love," HarperOne, (2006). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store This book earned mostly 5 star ratings (the best) and 1 star ratings (the worst); the average rating was 3.4. This is a normal phenomenon for controversial religious books.

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Copyright © 2002 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-OCT-20
Latest update: 2010-JUN-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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