What does the Bible say about Ancestral Sin, Generational Spirits, and Curses?3
Many charismatics and proponents of deliverance ministry often speak of ancestral sin and the generational demonic spirits that they believe frequently accompany it. Appeal is made to Exodus 20:5-6 -
"You shall not worship them [i.e., false gods or idols] or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments."
Several things should be noted about this text.
Nothing is explicitly said here about the passing down or generational transference of demonic spirits. The threat articulated here is the judgment of God, not the perpetuation of a demonic presence in a family line.
It is crucial to observe what the text says about those on whom this judgment comes. It is "those who hate Me" who are subject to this punishment. Nothing is said about innocent victims of ancestral rebellion. Along these lines, we must take into consideration Deut. 24:16 - "Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin" (cf. Ezek. 18:2-4,20). The point is this: if you do not "hate" God, this threat is not applicable to you. We should also note that divine "blessing" or the experience of "loving kindness" does not extend automatically to the children of godly people but only to "those who love Me [God] and keep My commandments."
Finally, the emphasis in the passage is on God's mercy, not his wrath. The point is that whereas the effects of disobedience last for some time, the effects of loving God are far more extensive ("to a thousand generations").
My conclusion is that this passage in Exodus cannot be used directly to prove the reality of intergenerational spirits. What it does imply, however, is that the sinful behavior of one generation can have lingering and disastrous consequences on subsequent members of that family line. You cannot be held morally accountable (before God) for the sins of your father or mother, but you can be made (involuntarily) to suffer from the social, economic, and spiritual consequences of their sin.
But is there any other evidence for the concept of generational spirits? Perhaps.
Consider first of all the case of the demonized young boy in Mark 9. As Clint Arnold explains, "the demonization was . . . not the result of the boy's own sin or his choice to give his allegiance to false gods. The spirits were passed on to him from some other source, the most likely of which would be his family" (Three Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare, 119). Suppose, for example, that this boy's grandfather was demonized as the result of his involvement in idolatry or sexual perversion. When this man dies, what happens to his demon? Where does it go? Is it possible that the demon might assert a legal claim or "moral right", so to speak, to this man's posterity?
We should also consider the fact "that children tend to act out many of the same sinful patterns of behavior that their parents engaged in. Thus, when we read Old Testament historical books such as 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles, we find the kings of Israel typically following in the evil steps of their ancestors. The biblical writer often asserts in the narrative a line such as 'he committed all the sins his father had done before him' (1 Kings 15:3). These tendencies may not only be genetic and environmental, but may also have a spiritual root. This is particularly apparent when we investigate the allegiances to other gods that the kings of Israel repeatedly gave themselves to" (Arnold, 119). Arnold goes on to recommend that "the solution is to recognize the sinful tendencies and the past ungodly commitments, ties, and allegiances of one's family and to disavow them. It is especially important to note that this is not a repudiation of one's family, only a renunciation of the sinful patterns and connections" (124).
So, then, what about so-called “curses”?
One of the problems in discussing curses is the failure of most people to define precisely what is meant by the term. Although curses were most often verbalized, biblical curses have little if anything to do with modern profanity. To curse is to call down or a send forth, from a supernatural source, calamity, trouble, chronic harm, or some other form of adversity upon another person or object. It is to speak evil of another person (hence, malediction or imprecation) with a view to inflicting injury (both physical and spiritual). The Anchor Bible Dictionary says, "to curse is to predict, wish, pray for, or cause trouble or disaster on a person or thing" (I:1218).
Another problem in discussing curses is the misapplication of certain biblical texts. For example, appeal is often made to Galatians 3:13 ("Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'"). The problem is that this text and the OT passages on which it is based all refer to divine judgment, not demonic attack. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-28 are devoted to articulating the grounds on which God will "curse" a person as well as "bless" him/her. Clearly, to be the recipient of a "curse" in this context means you come under divine judgment. God sends calamity or disaster or punishment in one form or another because of disobedience. Likewise, to be the recipient of a "blessing" is to experience his favor, his bounty, prosperity and the like. When Jesus is said to have redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us, the meaning is that he has suffered, in our place, the righteous wrath of God which we justly deserved. Therefore, Christians are no longer subject or vulnerable to a "curse" in that sense of the term.
In Joshua 6:26 and 9:23 a curse is pronounced by Joshua on both Jericho and Gibeon. But again, in both cases this appears to be a calling down of divine judgment, not demonic harm. In 1 Samuel 17:43 we see that pagan people in ancient times (in this case, Goliath) believed that curses (calamity) were the work of their gods. Spoken curses were thought to possess a power that derived from whatever deity they served. A curse was thought to trigger the release of malevolent spiritual energy toward the person or the object being cursed. See also 2 Samuel 16:5-12.
The question remains: Does the Bible speak about demonic curses? Do we read in Scripture of anyone invoking or calling down or sending forth a demonic being to bring pain and problems, harassment and harm, to another person? This would appear to be what the Moabite king Balak asked Balaam to do regarding Israel. God himself forbids Balaam from cursing Israel: "you shall not curse the people; for they are blessed" (Num. 22:12). Although no mention is made of demonic spirits being involved, it is reasonable to think that they would have been the instrument of bringing calamity on Israel had Balaam carried through with this task. As far as I can tell, there is no NT example of a demonic curse, although there are numerous NT instances of a curse as an expression of divine judgment for sin.
Proverbs 26:2 is especially instructive, if we could only figure out what it means! It reads: "Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, a curse that is causeless does not alight" (ESV). Or again, "Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest" (NIV). This seems to suggest that a curse is not effectual in itself. If it is undeserved, its impact is undermined. What would be the implications of this? At minimum, it would seem that a curse is, in itself, incapable of leading to demonization apart from the moral complicity of the person involved. Here is how Bruce Waltke explains the text, and with this I conclude:
“As long as a bird is flying hither and yon in an agitated and aimless manner, it remains in the air without landing. Likewise, a groundless curse cannot land in the order of redemption, for a legitimate landing place (i.e., a guilty person) is lacking (cf. Ps. 109:3, 17-19, 28). The deadly effect of a deserved curse (i.e., a word that condemns its victim to sterility, death, and defeat) will come to pass (cf. Deut. 28:15; 29:19, 20; Josh 6:26; 1 K. 16:34; 2 K. 2:24; Prov. 30:10; 1 Cor. 16:22), but not an undeserved curse (cf. Num. 22:6; 23:8; Deut. 23:4, 5; 1 Sam. 17:43; 2 Sam. 16:12; Jer. 15:10). Since the Creator and Lord of history is the source of blessing and cursing through a fellow human being, the proverb infers that the undeserved/unfitting curse is ineffective because the Sovereign does not back it up. ‘They may curse, but you will bless’ (Ps. 109:28)” (Commentary on Proverbs, [Eerdmans], 347-48).