Question: In Scripture it says the sins of the parents shall not be visited on the children (or something close to that). My question is: What of all us who are suffering from the original sin of Adam and Eve?
— Name, location withheld
Answer: The likely Scripture passage to which you refer is Ezekiel 18:1-4: “The word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, what is the meaning of this proverb you recite in the land of Israel: ‘Parents eat sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live — oracle of the Lord God: I swear that none of you will ever repeat this proverb in Israel. For all life is mine: the life of the parent is like the life of the child, both are mine. Only the one who sins shall die!”
This is different from earlier warnings in numerous places where these or similar words were used: “For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation” (Ex 20:5). And thus God, in the Ezekiel text, removes the punitive measures once applied to descendants due to the sins of their ancestors.
This removal of the punishments is likely due to the fact that God had led Israel (by Ezekiel’s time) to a deeper understanding of the afterlife, where sin is assessed and rewards and punishments are assigned on a personal and eternal basis. In earlier periods of Israel, knowledge of life after death was murky.
Thus, God spoke to them of the consequences of their sin in way they could understand. It is a bit like a parent who will discipline little children differently from teenagers.
But your question remains. If God says it is no longer the case that children will suffer due to their parents’ sin, then why do we continue to suffer due to Adam and Eve’s sin?
In answering this, it is important to distinguish between direct punishments from God and mere consequences that naturally flow from sin. What God is saying in the Ezekiel text is that he will no longer directly punish later generations for what their parents and ancestors did.
But this does not mean that all generational consequences of sin disappear. For example, if a father squanders the family money on gambling, God does not magically return the money to the children and thereby wipe away all the consequences. Further, we are all aware that parents hand on behavioral tendencies, good and bad, to their children. At a consequential level, what parents do affects their children.
Thus, when Adam and Eve lost many of the preternatural gifts (original traits of human nature), such as immortality, infused knowledge and sinless moral strength, they could not hand them on to us. They bequeathed to us a wounded and fallen human nature. Neither could they hand on paradise to us, for that land was lost. Paradise is to be with God, but Adam and Eve could no longer endure the presence of God in their sinful state. These are consequences for their sin, a wounded humanity incapable of enduring the holiness of God.
But God did not leave them (or us) with no way back. He sent his Son who has done more than reopen an earthly paradise and restore preternatural gifts. Jesus does far more. He opens the heavenly paradise and bestows supernatural gifts!
Thus, though the natural consequences of the sins of our parents may remain, God deals with each of us personally and daily renews his offer of grace and mercy.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.