Original Sin 13 – What Does Scripture Directly Say About Inherited Guilt?

I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the narrative of our Holy Scriptures and the way I see them interacting with the idea of inherited guilt. I imagine at this juncture, though, at least some readers are probably wondering if the Scriptures say anything directly about inherited guilt. And actually, they do. Personally, I know of only one place where the Scriptures directly address the idea.

(Ironically, it’s like the doctrine of sola fide or faith alone. There is actually only one place in the entire text of the Holy Scriptures where we explicitly find the idea of “faith alone” discussed, but those who hold to sola fide don’t really like to focus as much on that text and it’s one where they have to struggle for “alternative” readings of the text. Similarly, you won’t find much focus on this particular text among those who hold to the idea of inherited guilt.)

For that text, we’ll turn to our final prophet, Ezekiel. As a rule, I dislike placing too much emphasis on individual verses or short segments of the text. But there’s always a tension since you can’t just read or quote the entire text in every discussion. I encourage anyone following this series to go read all of Ezekiel or at least the entire flow of the narrative around chapter 18. But here is Ezekiel 18:20.

“But the soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the wrongdoing of his father, nor shall the father bear the wrongdoing of his son. The righteousness of a righteous man shall be upon himself, and the lawlessness of a lawless man shall be upon himself.”

We bear the guilt for our own actions, not for any other person’s actions. As with James, I’m sure there are any number of ways you can choose to read the text that negate its meaning. That’s why I don’t generally find that simply quoting texts has much value. The meaning of a text lies not in the text itself, but in its interpretation. That’s one of the reasons Christianity has over 30,000 schisms today all of which claim to ‘faithfully’ interpret the text of Scripture.

Ezekiel is an intriguing book. I’ll also note that a little later the text calls into question an idea that is usually closely tied to the idea of inherited guilt — that God condemns us to death for our inherited (and actual) guilt. Death and sin are intertwined in Scripture and its rarely a straightforward cause and effect relationship. We are mortal because humanity has turned from its only source of life. But then we are more strongly inclined to sin because we are mortal and because we experience the consequences of the sin of others. “Do I ever will the death of a lawless man, says the Lord, since my will is for him to turn from the evil way and live?” Is it God who wills death? Or is it ultimately us?

Just something more to think about. We’ll move on to other topics in the series tomorrow.

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