Doesn’t the Bible indicate that a person is not guilty of sin if they do something wrong without knowing it is wrong (i.e., if they sin unintentionally)? Isn’t a person innocent in such circumstances and, therefore, they should not be concerned about being punished by God?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer to both of these questions is no, based upon Leviticus 5:15-17, which declares,

If a person commits a trespass, and sins unintentionally in regard to the holy things of the Lord, then he shall bring to the Lord as his trespass offering a ram without blemish from the flocks, with your valuation in shekels of silver according to the shekel of the sanctuary, as a trespass offering.  And he shall make restitution for the harm that he has done in regard to the holy thing, and shall add one-fifth to it and give it to the priest. So the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering, and it shall be forgiven him.  If a person sins, and commits any of these things which are forbidden to be done by the commandments of the Lord, though he does not know it, yet he is guilty and shall bear his iniquity.

[Note:  When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]

Observe that Leviticus 5:15-17 states that the penalty for committing certain types of unintentional sins is restitution.  (Likewise, in our own society, unintentional violation of the law, because of ignorance or otherwise, is no excuse for violating that law, and, therefore, there will be punishment for doing so.)  Although there is no indication in this scripture passage as to whether or not God will punish unintentional sins for which restitution is not made as He will punish sins that are committed knowingly, the Bible does indicate that there will be some form of punishment for all unconfessed sins (see 1 John 1:9).

In addition to situations in which a person must bear the consequences for doing something wrong even if they don’t realize it is wrong, various incidents in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, seem to indicate that God sometimes punishes people for the sins of others.  For example, Exodus 20:5 states that God will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.

In contrast with the statement in Exodus, Ezekiel 18:20 states that God does not punish people for the sins of others.  In this verse, God says,

The soul who sins shall die.  The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.  The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

In regard to the apparent discrepancy between Exodus 20:5 and Ezekiel 18:20, Basil Atkinson, Ph.D., states on page 164 of his book entitled Is the Bible True?,

The Exodus passage is speaking about the temporal effects of sin in this world, and it is obvious that a man’s family suffers by his departure from God.  The Ezekiel passage speaks of the eternal results of sin, which, of course, apply only to the individual.

And, in their book entitled When Critics Ask, Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., express a similar viewpoint.  On page 285 they assert,

Ezekiel is speaking of the guilt of the father’s sin never being held against the sons, but Moses was referring to the consequences of the father’s sins being passed on to their children.  Unfortunately, if a father is a drunk, the children can suffer abuse and even poverty.  Likewise, if a mother has contracted AIDS from drug use, then her baby may be born with AIDS.  But, this does not mean that the innocent children are guilty of the sins of their parents.

Like the previously mentioned verse in Ezekiel, Deuteronomy 24:16 declares, “The fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall the children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin.” However, Geisler and Howe indicate that the Deuteronomy passage is directed to Israel’s legal system.  In addressing this passage on page 130 of their book, they state, “It was not the right of the human courts to exact capital punishment from the children of guilty parents if the children were not personally guilty of the crime.”

Nevertheless, there are several examples in the Bible that seem to indicate that innocent people are sometimes severely punished for the sins of others.  We will consider the following cases:

  • All the firstborn Egyptians died due to the final plague that God brought on Egypt to induce the Pharaoh to free the Israelites from bondage.
  • On several occasions, tribes of people, sometimes including women and children, were killed by the Israelites.
  • The child fathered by King David died as a result of David’s sexual intercourse with Bathsheba while she was still married to Uriah.
  • God caused a famine that affected everyone in Israel, because Saul had years earlier violated a sacred oath made by Joshua to the Gibeonites.
  • God severely punished a prophet who had been tricked into disobeying what God had previously instructed him to do.
  • Thousands of Israelites died because King David took a census of the nation of Israel that was contrary to the will of God.

All the Firstborn Egyptians Died Due to the Final Plague that God Brought on Egypt to Induce the Pharaoh to Free the Israelites from Bondage (Exodus 12:29-30)

This account of the killing of the firstborn Egyptians raises the question as to why these people were slain, if they had no control over Pharaoh’s decision not to let the Israelites leave Egypt  On page 114 of his book, Archer provides the following explanation:

The fortunes of the citizens of any country are bound up with the government that guides their national policy, whether that government be a democracy, a party dictatorship, or monarchy.

A foolish or wicked government . . . brings disaster and distress on all its subjects . . . .  So it was with Egypt in Moses’ day.  The consequences of the decisions made by Pharaoh . . . were binding on all the people.

Geisler and Howe express the belief that, if the Egyptian people had tried to do so, they may have been able to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt.  On page 74 of their book, Geisler and Howe assert,

Although the power of the people is severely limited under a dictatorship as that of Egypt, it is conceivable that the people could have revolted so as to either force Pharaoh to change his mind, or to overthrow him. . . . The Egyptians were obviously content to leave such matters in the hands of their king.  By doing so, they were not innocent of the decisions which were made by their king.  The judgment of God was not directed only at Pharaoh or the heads of state of the land, but on Egypt as a whole, since they were equally responsible for the oppression and bondage of the people of God.

It is also important to take into consideration that God had previously brought nine less severe plagues on Egypt in order to compel the Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to leave the country, but the Pharaoh had not allowed them to leave (see Exodus 7:14-10:29).  Furthermore, after the ninth plague, the Pharaoh had threatened to kill Moses if he came back again to seek freedom for the Hebrews.  Therefore, a more severe plague was apparently necessary to motivate Pharaoh to free the Hebrews.

On Several Occasions, Tribes of People, Sometimes Including Women and Children, Were Killed by the Israelites (Numbers 31:7-17 and Joshua 6:21-23)

In one incident during their travel in the wilderness after leaving Egypt, the Israelites killed every Midianite male and every Midianite woman who has known a man intimately. In a subsequent incident, as the Israelites were seeking to conquer the land where they would settle, they killed everyone in Jericho, except for one woman and all her family members who were with her in her house.  How can such actions be justified?

Concerning the killing of the Midianites, Geisler and Howe assert on page 110 of their book,

[I]t was not on the authority of Moses that Israel performed this destruction.  Rather, it was at the direct command of God. . . . The abominable nature of the influence which the Midianites had upon Israel in leading them into idolatry merited the destructive judgment of God. . . .The moral justification for this action is found in the fact that God has the right to give and take life.

In reference to the killing of the inhabitants of Jericho, Archer says on page 158 of his book,

Such complete destruction might appear to be needlessly harsh, since it included infants who were too young to have committed overt sin. . . .

In answer to this humanitarian objection, we need to recognize first of all that the biblical record indicates that Joshua [the leader of the Israelites] was simply carrying out God’s orders in this matter.

The loss of innocent life in the demolition of Jericho was much to be regretted, but we must recognize that there are times when only radical surgery will save the life of a cancer-stricken body.

Subsequently, on the same page of his book, Archer explains that, if the inhabitants of Jericho had been permitted to live, their moral depravity might have infected the Israelites.

Thus, in both of these instances, God instructed the Israelites to kill people who, as a nation, were extremely sinful, and who would have been likely to influence the Israelites to commit similar sins.  As for the killing of innocent children, many Christians believe a child who has not reached the age of accountability will go to heaven (i.e., will spend eternity with God).  [Note: The next topic discusses the age of accountability in more detail.]

The Child Fathered by King David Died as a Result of David’s Sexual Intercourse with Bathsheba While She Was Still Married to Uriah (2 Samuel 12:14-18)

In this regard, Geisler and Howe assert on page 130 of their book,

[T]he Scripture does not indicate that David’s child was being punished for David’s sin.  Rather, the Bible indicates that the death of the child was David’s punishment. . . . If it is thought that allowing the child to die was an unjust way to punish David, it must be remembered that David trusted in the righteousness of God when he said in faith, I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me. . . . David trusted that God had taken his child to heaven and that he would be with the child when he died.

And, on page 172 of their book, Geisler and Howe argue that the child was probably spared a life of sorrow and trouble as the illegitimate offspring of the illicit relationship of David and Bathsheba.

Furthermore, Gleason L. Archer indicates in his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties that death is not as bad as many people seem to think.  On page 185 he declares,

[W]e may think of death as a fearsome menace, a terrible curse, a final stroke of judgment.  Insofar as death – that is to say, physical death with its separation of the soul from the body means the end of all opportunity to find God and to glorify Him with a godly life, there is something very solemn and awesome about death.  But God’s Word tells us very plainly that physical death, regardless of how it looks to the human observer, is not the end for any man.  He goes right on into the eternal phase of his career. . . .

In other words, the physical death of a person who will spend eternity with God after they die is not a terrible thing.  Many Christians believe that a child who has not reached the age of accountability will go to heaven (i.e., will spend eternity with God).  The age of accountability can be defined as the time when a child first becomes sufficiently mature to understand that certain behavior is wrong (i.e., immoral or sinful).  Generally, a child reaches the age of accountability by the time he (or she) is 13, but sometimes several years earlier.  Because David and Bathsheba’s baby had not even been born, he obviously had not reached the age of accountability.

[For further discussion of whether or not children who die before they reach the age of accountability will go to heaven, click on “Does God Make Exceptions for People Who Don’t Have Opportunity to Trust in Christ?]

God Caused a Famine that Affected Everyone in Israel, Because Saul Had Years Earlier Violated a Sacred Oath Made by Joshua to the Gibeonites (2 Samuel 21:1-2)

In reference to these verses, David Guzik’s Commentary on the Bible indicates that the nation of Israel was guilty of complicity in Saul’s wrongdoing.  According to Guzik,

[God caused the famine] because of Saul and his bloodthirsty house, because he killed the Gibeonites. This massacre isn’t recorded in 1 Samuel, but David didn’t question that it happened. Apparently at some time during his reign Saul attacked and killed many of the Gibeonites.

The whole people suffered for Saul’s sin; either because they approved it, or at least bewailed it not; neither did what they could to hinder it; whereby they became accessory. (Trapp)

In the days of Joshua – more than 400 years before David’s time – Israel swore not to harm the Gibeonites, a neighboring tribe (Joshua 9:1-27). God expected Israel to keep their promise, even though the Gibeonites tricked Israel into making the agreement. Saul’s crime was not only in the killing of the Gibeonites but also in breaking this ancient and important oath.

Likewise, Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible says,

We’re are told of the injury which Saul had, long before this, done to the Gibeonites, which we had no account of in the history of his reign, nor should we have heard of it here but that it came now to be reckoned for. The Gibeonites were of the remnant of the Amorites (2 Samuel 21:2), who by a stratagem had made peace with Israel, and had the public faith pledged to them by Joshua for their safety. . . . That which made this an exceedingly sinful sin was that he not only shed innocent blood, but therein violated the solemn oath by which the nation was bound to protect them. See what brought ruin on Saul’s house: it was a bloody house.

We find the nation of Israel chastised with a sore famine, long after, for this sin of Saul. . . . Even in the land of Israel, that fruitful land, and in the reign of David, that glorious reign, there was a famine, not extreme (for then notice would sooner have been taken of it and enquiry made into the cause of it), but great drought, and scarcity of provisions, the consequence of it, for three years together. . . . It is not for us to object against the people’s smarting for the sin of their king (perhaps they were aiding and abetting). . . .

And, Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible provides the following similar explanation:

In this passage we are taken back to the time of Saul and learn of a major crime of Saul, which had not been mentioned previously, the attempted genocide of the Gibeonites who were under YHWH’s [i.e., God’s] protection. . . . In this particular case he ignored the sacred oath made by Joshua to the Gibeonites, which had protected them from being driven out of Canaan or being subjected to death (Joshua 9:3-27).

It is apparent from what is said here that Saul and his house had determined to rid Israel of the Canaanite Gibeonites once and for all. . . . With that in view he had carried out a mass slaughter among them, and by doing so he and his followers had ignored Israel’s permanently sacred oath, made in the sight of YHWH, with regard to them. His actions were thus themselves a blot on the whole of Israel, and we must remember in this regard that many Israelites must have assisted him in the venture, while most of them must have gone along with him in it. There is certainly no evidence at any time of any major objections. Thus this must not be seen as just the sin of one man. It was a sin in which all partook. All knew that the Gibeonites were under YHWH’s direct protection, and must not be touched, and yet no one had seemingly lifted a finger to help them.

Since the Bible does not state whether or not anyone other than Saul shared the blame for the aforementioned atrocity, it is only speculation that there were many other people in Israel who were also guilty in this matter and that, therefore, the famine was a more extensive punishment than would be expected if only Saul had been guilty.

God Severely Punished a Prophet Who Had Been Tricked into Disobeying what God Had Previously Instructed Him to Do (1 Kings 13:1-24)

Adam Clarke Commentary asserts that a certain prophet was punished because he should not have done something that God had previously instructed him not to do, unless God Himself subsequently gave him permission to do otherwise.  Clarke argues,

[The prophet] permitted himself to be imposed on; he might have thought, as he had accomplished every purpose for which God sent him, and had actually begun to return by another way, God, who had given him the charge, had authority to say, “As thy purpose was to obey every injunction, even to the letter, I now permit thee to go with this old prophet, and take some refreshment.” Now God might as well have dispensed with this part of the injunction, as he did in the case of Abraham: Take thy son Isaac, thy only son, whom thou lovest – and offer him for a burnt-offering; but, when he saw his perfect readiness, he dispensed with the actual offering, and accepted a ram in his stead. Thus much may be said in vindication of the man of God: but if this be so, why should he be punished with death, for doing what he had reason and precedent to believe might be the will of God? I answer: He should not have taken a step back, till he had remission of the clause from the same authority which gave him the general message. He should have had it from the word of the Lord to himself, in both cases, as Abraham had; and not taken an apparent contradiction of what was before delivered unto him, from the mouth of a stranger, who only professed to have it from an angel, who pretended to speak unto him by the word of the Lord. In this, and in this alone, lay the sinfulness of the act of the man of God, who came out of Judah.

Similarly, John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible says,

[The prophet] went back with [the prophet who had lied to him]. In which he sinned; for as he had most certainly the command of God not to eat and drink in that place, he ought to have had the countermand from the Lord, and not trusted to another person. There are some things indeed which may be said in his favour, and be an apology for him, as that this man was an ancient prophet of the Lord, as he appeared to him; and that though he was forbid to eat and drink with idolaters, yet he thought he might with a prophet of the Lord, and especially as he affirmed he had the direction of an angel of the Lord for it; nor could he conceive that the prophet had any interest to serve by it, but rather it might be chargeable and burdensome to him; and he might think the Lord, out of compassion on him, had countermanded his former orders, and the circumstances he was in might the more incline him to listen to these plausible pretences; but, after all, he ought to have taken no directions but from the Lord himself; in this he failed. . . .

Guzik states in agreement with both Clarke and Gill,

The prophet from Bethel offered no reward, other than simple food. . . .

No matter how natural and seductive this enticement was, it was the duty of the man of God to resist it. He had a word from God to guide his actions, and should receive no other word accept through dramatic and direct confirmation by God’s Spirit. His failure at this point ended his usefulness as a man of God.

The Wycliffe Bible Commentary concludes, “[The prophet] disobeyed the divine command.  A practical lesson to be learned is that the advice of other men, no matter if they are Christian friends, should not be substituted for the clear call of duty within our own hearts.”

God’s punishment of the prophet may seem to be unfair in light of the fact that he was lied to by another prophet who said that an angel had told him to inform the other prophet to do something that was contrary to what God had told the other prophet to do.  Given the severity of the punishment, we must assume that when God clearly instructs a person as to what He wants them to do, that person should not allow anyone else to persuade them to disregard what God previously instructed them to do.

Thousands of Israelites Died, Apparently Because King David Took a Census of the Nation of Israel That Was Contrary to the Will of God (1 Chronicles 21:1-14)

Approximately 70,000 men died from a plague that God inflicted on Israel, evidently as punishment for the sin that King David committed when he took a census that was against God’s will.

An account of the census is also given in 2 Samuel 24, which states in verse one, “Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel. . . .  Although no reason is given in this passage as to why God was angry with the people of Israel, it is clear that they were not innocent.”

On page 221 of his book, Archer speculates that David’s motive for taking the census was “pride in his achievements as a military genius and in the prosperity that the entire kingdom had attained under his leadership.”  He goes on to say, “It is a mistake . . . to assume that David’s countrymen were not also involved in this same attitude of pride.”  Perhaps, as Archer suggests, the Israelites’ sin was pride, but it may have been one or more other sins.

Conclusion

We realize that it is not always possible for humans to completely understand the reasons for everything that God does.  Therefore, the explanations we have provided in an attempt to rationalize the killing of seemingly innocent people may not entirely satisfy the reader.  However, if God is the Creator of life, He is sovereign, so He has the right to terminate life, whether through the actions of people He instructs to do so or by His own actions.

Furthermore, if we are willing to accept the fact that God is righteous, as is taught in the Bible (e.g., 2 Chronicles 12:6; Ezra 9:15; Nehemiah 9:8; Psalm 11:7; 116:5; 119:137; 129:4; 145:17; Lamentations 1:18; Daniel 9:14), then we have good reason to trust Him to do the right thing with regard to every matter.