Main biblical themes


he transferability of sin: Punishing
innocent people for the sins of the guilty

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There are over 8,000 essays in this web site. They cover thousands of individual topics.

I personally regard two topics as the most important -- particularly for Christians:

  1. Can humans assess God's will through prayer? Many people pray to -- and carry on a conversation with -- God. Most of them sincerely feel that they can assess the will of God through prayer, and subsequently follow God's wishes. But a pilot study we have conducted -- and numerous examples at Christian conventions -- seem to indicate that messages -- believed to originate from God during prayer -- may not be reliable.

  2. Scapegoating: the transferability of sin. That is, this section.

I urge you to read about these two topics.

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Conflicting biblical quotations on scapegoating:

Is scapegoating ethical? Can a sin -- and the punishment for that sin -- ethically be transferred from the guilty person to one or more innocent persons?

No. The Bible clearly says that everyone will suffer for their own sin only and not the sins of others.

Consider, from the King James Version of the Bible:

  • Deuteronomy 24:16 says about serious sins:

    "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

  • Ezekiel 18, verses 1-32 is a much longer passage that repeats the same teaching for all sins. Verse 20 says:

    "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him."

Ezekiel 18 is a foundational legal and moral principle in many countries. If I rob a bank, the police do not arrest, try, convict, and imprison my daughter; and vice-versa.

Yes. God can personally take an active role in transferring punishment from the guilty to the innocent:

The Bible contains passages that describe how the sin of one person can be transferred to multiple other people. For example:

  • Adam and Eve ate a forbidden fruit, in what is called the "Original Sin." Many Christians believe that the original parents' children, grand-children, great-grandciildren, etc. all the way through over 100 billion human descendents to the more than 7 billion people on Earth today have been impacted by Adam and Eve's sin.

  • The torture death of Jesus by the Roman Army in which the Son of God suffered crucifixion. Many Christians believe that Jesus' death was "substitute for human sin, satisfying God's just wrath against humankind's transgressions due to Christ's infinite merit," thus allowing salvation for all those who qualify. 3

  • Exodus 20:5 states: "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."

A skeptical quotation by Ahamed Deedat:

Original Sin: "Each and every one has this contamination according to the Christians....He, [God] blames you for something that you didn't do and he blesses you for what someone else did.". 3

That is: God blames everyone for the sins of Adam and Eve, and blesses all believers for the sacrifice of Jesus.


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When a crime is committed, who should be held responsible? Should it be only the person who committed the illegal act and that person's accomplices, if there are any?

If punishment is involved, should it be restricted to the perpetrator? Or is it appropriate to apply a principle of collective responsibility 4 and punish a group of people who have some connection to the perpetrator? -- perhaps including that person's parents; their children; more distant relatives; inhabitants of the same town; those of the same religion, tribe, nationality, language, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or some other factor. 5

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. When they do the crime, they will end up doing the time in jail.

However, if we assume that the Bible is inerrant and unambiguous, the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) and the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament) both teach a different message. They contain numerous descriptions of instances where a transfer of responsibility from the guilty to the innocent took place -- some under direct instruction by God.

As Tracy White wrote in her column "Daily Walk:"

"Four thousands years were required to teach the world through extensive pattern and unfolding design that sin must be atoned only by the shedding of innocent blood. ..." 6 

Although this section of our web site describes many of the instances in the Bible where sin transfer is described, It is important to remember that many liberal and mainline Jews and Christians do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Some consider many biblical stories to be unrelated to real, historical events. Some even feel that some events are against the will and intent of God, and merely reflect the pre-scientific tribal culture that was active when the books were written. Many suggest that such transfer of sin is immoral and that biblical passages promoting such transfers should be ignored along with other biblical events that are immoral by today's ethical standards.

The principle of transfer of sin from the guilty to the innocent also works for blessings. Acts 16 describes how Paul and Silas were convicted of causing a public disturbance and thrown into prison. The Phillipian jailer asked them: "

Acts 16":29-31: "... what must I do to be saved? They replied, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved -- you and your household'." (NIV translation)

Thus, if the jailer believes the right things about Jesus, then he would be saved. The effects of his decision would then be transferred to his wife and children even though they may not have believed the same things about Jesus.

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Topics covered in this section:

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Related topic:

During 2015-NOV, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. the LDS Church, or the Mormon Church) changed their policies on the treatment of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals in same-gender relationships and marriages. The policy changes also directly affect the children of such couples. Some have criticized this policy change as punishing the innocent for the "sins" of their parents. More details.

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  1. Deuteronomy 24:16 in the King James Version of the Bible.
  2. Exodus 20:5 in the King James Version of the Bible. This is part of one of the three copies of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures.
  3. Excerpted from a speech by Ahamed Deedat at:
  4. Marion Smiley, "Collective Responsibility," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at:
  5. Nicholas Kristof, "Sentenced to be raped," The New York Times, 2004-SEP-29, Page A-25. Abstract at: Full text at:
  6. Tracy White, "A life for a life: Abraham's obedient faith was rewarded," Think magazine, Focus Press, 2011-FEB, Page 8.

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Copyright 2002 to 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-OCT-20
Latest update: 2019-JUL-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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