How do reconcile Exodus 20:5 and Ezekiel 18:20? -- Evgeny Tkachenko (Yekaterinburg, Russia)
I believe Exodus discusses the consequences of sin, which often last for as long as three or four generations. The innocent may suffer for the sin of the parents, just as the son of an alcoholic may suffer for his father's sins. He may suffer a beating -- as when in an alcoholic frenzy a man hits his children -- or he may suffer by imitating the sinful behavior, or doing something sinful in order to "compensate" for the lack of love or self-esteem he experiences. Of course, even though he suffers the consequences of sin, he is not being directly punished for his own sin. (Unless, in response to the father's sin, he sins on his own.) Yet the sins are being visited on him -- they are having an impact on him -- because he is part of the network of relationships that connect him with the source of sinful actions (in this case, the father).
Ezekiel 18, on the other hand, is speaking of a somewhat different subject. "The soul who sins is the one who will die." This passage talks about personal responsibility.
The sober reality is that although God is fair -- not arbitrary or cruel -- and desires all to be right with him (Ezekiel 18:32). Yet he does not necessarily protect us from others. Their sin can affect us, in some cases severely. Indirectly speaking -- and this is not "fair" -- we are being "punished" for their wrongdoing. Of course God would never prevent a person from being saved just because of someone else's sin -- God is always just -- we are not directly punished for others' sins, but we may be indirectly punished. I hope the distinction is clear.
Note: You may also want to take a look at my article on Original Sin at the website.
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