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

Harm resulting from sin transfer.
Why is this biblical theme rarely mentioned?

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Background:

Most legal, religious and ethical systems worldwide hold individuals responsible for their own acts. A guilty person cannot transfer their responsibility for having committed a criminal act to their children, parents, friends, or strangers. To do so is generally considered immoral. When an individual does the crime, they are stuck with the time (in jail).

Most of the religions and ethical systems of the world reject the concept of transferring sin and punishment from the guilty to the innocent. This is one belief shared by both followers of almost all world religions as well as Neo-pagans who follow reconstructed Pagan religions from the past, secularists, Humanists, Agnostics, Atheists, etc.

However, this concept is found throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

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Examples from biblical teachings:

bullet Many Christian faith groups teach the concept of Original Sin. In Genesis, Adam, Eve, and a serpent disobeyed God and were punished. This punishment extended to their children, grand children, and subsequent descendents. Two hundred and forty generations later, humans today are still being punished for that original sin by our first parents.
bullet Also in Genesis, because of widespread violence, wickedness and evil by men and women around the world, God created a great genocidal flood. Almost the entire human race drowned, including innocent newborns, infants and children below the age of accountability. Only Noah and his family survived.
bullet Also in Genesis, Ham, a son of Noah, apparently committed an immoral act against his father that is hinted at in the Bible but not described. He was not punished, but a curse was placed on his innocent son and his son's descendents to be forever enslaved. This story, referred to as the "Curse of Ham" was used by theologians and slave owners to justify human slavery in Christian countries.
bullet In the book of Joshua, large numbers of innocent newborns, infants, and children were slaughtered as part of a genocide against the Canaanites. The mass murder was justified on the basis that the adults in the country worshiped the wrong God and allegedly participating in evil rituals.
bullet The Christian Scriptures contain support for the common Christian belief that one can be saved by trusting Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) as Lord and Savior. One result of salvation is that a saved person's sins are remembered no more by God; they attain Heaven after death rather than experience eternal torture in Hell. Another belief is that one's sins are transferred to Yeshua on the cross, who was said to have have led a sinless life.


Examples of such punishment do occur in recent history: Some are:

bulletIn the USSR, individuals were often oppressed because of their parents' anti-Communist beliefs or actions.
bullet During 2002, after careful consideration, the tribal council in Meerwala, Pakistan ordered Mukhtaran Bibi to be forcibly gang raped because her brother was alleged to have had a relationship with a woman of a status higher than himself.4
bulletDuring many religiously motivated mass murders and genocides in the Bible, children were killed solely because of the religious beliefs or religiously motivated actions of their parents or ancestors.
bullet

The concept of collective responsibility is common today. Some people hold all Muslims, Christians, Jews, Catholics, men, Caucasians, etc. responsibility for the actions of a very few Muslims, Christians, Jews, Catholics, men, Caucasians, etc. For example:

  • During part of the 20th century and previous centuries, most Christians held all Jews -- even those currently living -- responsible for the execution of Jesus -- an event that happened almost twenty centuries before any living Jews were born. These centuries of church-sponsored hatred laid the foundation for the Nazi Holocaust. During the middle ages, hundreds of thousands of Jews of all ages were murdered for simply being Jewish. During the Nazi regime in Germany, approximately 6 million Jews of all ages were exterminated for the same reason.

  • One of the justifications of the U.S. second invasion of Iraq was revenge for the 9-11 attacks. All Iraqis were apparently held responsible for the attacks even though the actual perpetrators were mostly from Saudi-Arabia and had no connection to Iraq. It was apparently an adequate justification that the people in Saudi Arabia and Iraq shared different traditions within the same religion.

  • Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the Boston bombing suspect, allegedly wrote a note just before he was arrested that said: "When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims." By the same twisted logic, he appears to have believed that by killing a group of marathon runners, most of whom were at least nominal Christians, he was attacking all Christians, and that all Christians are responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Many people are horrified by such actions. They believe that oppressing, discriminating against, or killing others who are merely related in some way to a perpetrator is unacceptable. They consider punishment of the innocent for the crimes of the guilty to be morally repugnant, abhorrent, and profoundly immoral.

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What would happen if the biblical theme of transmission of sin never existed, or is ignored?

One might speculate about what would happen if:

  • The stories in the Bible about the transfer of punishment from the guilty to the innocent had never been written. In their place, and

  • In their place, there were many stories that emphasized personal responsibility and punishment for one's own sins.

Consider one modern example that has been passionately argued in the U.S.: the proposed Muslim community center to be built the equivalent of about 6 blocks from "ground zero" where the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) once stood. The towers were destroyed during the 2001-SEP-11 terrorist attack on New York City, Washington, and the Pentagon.

  • Some might argue from the Bible's theme on sin transmission that since:
    • All of the 9/11 terrorists were Muslims and
    • The sponsors of the proposed community center are also Muslims, that

the building would be an outrage, an insult to the victims of the 9/11 attack, and must not be permitted.

According to the "punish the innocent" biblical theme, responsibility for the terrorist acts extends beyond the 19 terrorists who were directly involved in the attack to include:

  • The 19 terrorists' al-Qaeda handlers, and further to include:
  • All al-Qaeda personnel and supporters, and further to include:
  • All followers of Wahhabism -- the religion of al Qaeda -- a small and relatively new extremist branch of the Sunni tradition, and further to include:
  • All Sunni Muslims, and finally to include
  • All 1.2 billion Muslims on earth.

Every Muslim would then be held collectively responsible for the actions of the 19 terrorists. According to this line of reasoning, the community center must not be built. Numerous examples from the Bible can be cited to support this idea of collective responsibility.

  • Others might argue that Islam is clearly not a single monolithic religion. Just as there are thousands of faith groups within Christianity -- each following their interpretation of the Bible and including fundamentalists, other evangelicals, mainline, liberal and progressive Christians -- there are many traditions within Islam. The version of Islam that is followed by the al-Qaeda terrorist group is Wahhabism. They reject all other religions, as well as "all non-Wahhabi Islam, especially the spiritual forms of Islam." 7 A prime target of Wahhabism is the Sufi tradition, the largest spiritual form of Islam.

    The group promoting the community center follows Sufism, and is thus considered by Wahhabism as their arch enemy as much as is Christianity. Both Sufis and Christians value religious tolerance and understanding. They should be natural allies. According to this line of reasoning, the group sponsoring the community center should be encouraged, because the center will promote religious tolerance, understanding, and peace.

On the other hand, if the passages promoting the transmission of sin and punishment from the guilty to the innocent were removed from the Bible, or ignored, then the concept of original sin would vanish. So would the belief by many Christians that on the cross, Jesus -- who was described as leading a sinless life -- would not be laden with the guilt and sin of humanity. As Richard Bozarth commented:

"The whole justification of Jesus' life and death is predicated on the existence of Adam and the forbidden fruit he and Eve ate. Without the original sin, who needs to be redeemed? Without Adam's fall into a life of constant sin terminated by death, what purpose is there to Christianity? None....Without Adam, without the original sin, Jesus Christ is reduced to a man with a mission on a wrong planet!"8

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Why is this biblical theme so rarely discussed openly:

We suspect that there are a number of reasons why there is little direct mention by Christian pastors, priests, ministers and theologians of the transmission of sin theme in the Bible:

  • It would be seen by the parishioners as an obvious violation of natural justice. Most world religions and philosophical systems teach that the sins by (and punishment due to) the guilty cannot ethically be transferred to innocent persons. Police don't arrest the grand-daughters of bank robbers and charge the former with the crimes of their grandfathers. We are all horrified at stories from the World War II at the injustice by which Nazis reacted to the assassination of one of their officers by rounding up and executing a half dozen or more randomly selected local citizens.

  • The theme violates the biblical passage at Deuteronomy 24:16 which states:

    "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." 1

    Although a strict interpretation of this passage might limit it to only capital crimes, it is obvious to many Christians that it should be universally applied to other forms of retaliation.

  • Direct discussion of the transmission of sin theme in the Bible might have a serious negative impact on two of the basic principles found throughout much of Protestant Christianity:

    • Total Depravity: This is the first point of Calvinism: that sin has impacted on all aspects of humanity. It does not mean that humans are as evil as they could possibly be. However it teaches that every part of everyone's personality is affected by the original sin committed by the first parents, and its subsequently transmission to us via perhaps 225 generations of ancestors.

    • Atonement: That the torture-death of Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) on the cross -- believed by Christians to be the only sinless person ever to live on Earth -- was the only path by which it became possible for God to be reconciled with sinners, but only after each first repented of their sin and trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior.

To avoid the direct discussion of the transmission of sin theme, Christian leaders tend to avoid discussion on the transmission of sin from Adam and Eve to us down through the centuries. Rather, they discuss how Adam and Eve's actions introduced sin into a previously perfect world, and caused death to enter the universe for the first time. The Roman Catholic church considers the mechanism of the inter-generational transmission of sin to be a mystery.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. From the King James Version of the Bible.
  2. "Bishop Spong Q&A," Beliefnet, 2005-JUN-08.
  3. Rev. James Petigru Boyce, "Abstract of Systematic Theology," (1887), Chapter 28, Page 60, at: http://www.founders.org/
  4. Gregory F. Millema, "Collective Responsibility: Introduction", Rodopi, (1997). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  5. Online at: http://www.calvin.edu/
  6. J.S. Spong, "This is Not the Word of the Lord," A New Christianity for a New World series, 2007-JUN-27. http://secure.agoramedia.com/
  7. Stephen Schwartz, "Saudi Arabia and the rise of the Wahhabi threat," Middle East Forum,
  8. Richard Bozarth, "The Meaning of Evolution," American Atheist magazine, 1979-SEP, Page 30.

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Copyright © 2002 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-OCT-20
Latest update: 2013-MAY-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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