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Are There Generational Curses? What the Bible Teaches on the Subject

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for as well as a part-time professor of philosophy for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). Among his books are the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology Handbook (with Andrew Jit), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

Are there generational curses? You’ve probably noticed physical traits passed from generation to generation in your family. But what about spiritual and moral traits? Is there anything hereditary about spirituality? Although the Bible describes the consequences of sin passing from generation to generation, one of its central messages is that God’s grace and power are more than enough to redirect generational trajectories. 

Here are some questions which will help us explore what the Bible teaches on the subject of generational curses:

What exactly is meant by “generational curses”?

For some people, it can feel like the deck is stacked against them generationally. Perhaps alcoholism tends to run in the family. Or maybe abuse has been repeating itself in multiple generations. Perhaps a family has a history of mental illness or even suicide. Sometimes, these tragic legacies are a matter of corrupt values or bad habits getting passed on to the next generation simply because that’s what has been modeled. Other times, there can be genetic factors, such as a predisposition to various addictions.

However, when people wonder about actual generational curses, often they’re thinking of something more than bad habits caught along the way (which everybody has experienced). Perhaps they’re thinking more in terms of a hereditary streak of bad luck that they aren’t able to shake. Or maybe it’s something even more sinister, such as a spell uttered in the past which they believe still holds power over future generations. Or perhaps scariest of all, there’s the fear that the demons who oppressed and even possessed one’s ancestors still have influence over the person today.

“Let’s explore what the Bible indicates can be passed down from generation to generation.”

In light of these possibilities that people entertain, let’s explore what the Bible indicates can be passed down from generation to generation. It’ll be helpful to mention starting out that, if you believe in a generational fatalism (“because such and such happened to my ancestors, it is bound to happen to me as well”), the Bible offers you hope. And if, on the other hand, you assume each new generation is a blank slate unencumbered by the past generation’s baggage, the Bible corrects that assumption as well.

What makes the question of generational curses difficult?

Well, for one thing, exploring what inflictions are possible to inherit from our ancestors isn’t fun to think about. It can feel heavy as we think about the darkness in our family’s past and how it can weigh down our present. Another difficulty, especially for those of us living in the Western world, is that we tend to see ourselves primarily as individuals.

Seeing ourselves as part of a group we didn’t elect to join—and which can affect the trajectory of our lives without our permission—can strike us as unfair and untrue. Most of us would rather read a self-help book or listen to a motivational speaker, both of which tell us there’s nothing we can’t achieve, rather than consider that there might be something in our lives we don’t personally have power over.

“Most of us would rather read a self-help book or listen to a motivational speaker, both of which tell us there’s nothing we can’t achieve.”

In the Western world, we also tend to be rationalistic when it comes to the spookier things we hear about. For example, when it comes to demons that go beyond metaphor (i.e., going beyond the proverbial “He’s got his demons”), or when it comes to evil being something that has a measure of control over us instead of just something we engage in at will. It’s all good and well to talk about modeling bad habits and even genetic predispositions. But when it comes to anything beyond the obvious, we can get skittish.

What curses do we find in the Old Testament?

In church, it’s a lot more common for us to talk about blessings, not curses. And, to be fair, so does the Bible. If you do a word search in the Bible, you’ll find there are well over twice the references to “bless” and “blessing” to “curse” and “cursing.” Still, there are some significant curses that take place in the Old Testament, starting with humans’ first sin (Gen. 3). God pronounced a curse on the serpent that tempted them, that he would someday be defeated. God also pronounced a curse on the physical world to make life more difficult for Adam (e.g., field work would be toilsome) and Eve (e.g., childbirth would be painful). Since these curses have affected all humans from then on, there is a sense in which they are generational curses.

“Since these curses have affected all humans from then on, there is a sense in which they are generational curses.”

Here are some more localized curses we read about in the Old Testament: After Cain murdered his brother, God cursed Cain to become a restless wanderer. Noah cursed Canaan because of the lewdness of his father Ham (Noah’s son), in what was apparently a generational curse. In the era of the judges and kings, it apparently wasn’t uncommon for people to hurl curses at each other (Judges 9:27; 17:2; 12:18; 1 Sam. 14:24; 17:43; 2 Sam. 16:5). When a gang of youths threatened Elisha, he called down a curse, after which two bears came and mauled them to death. Some of the psalms are “imprecatory,” calling for curses on their oppressors.

One of the most interesting curses in the Old Testament is a generational curse that never actually happened: Balaam was hired to curse Israel, but when God intervened, he ended up blessing them instead.

We also find curses talked about in the law of Moses. According to the law, anyone who cursed mother or father was to be put to death (Ex. 21:17), as was anyone who cursed God (Lev. 24:15).

Are there generational curses? “We see a generational curse of sorts in the Ten Commandments.”

We see a generational curse of sorts in the Ten Commandments (Commandment #2): Those in the community who worshiped idols would see God’s punishment on their families as long as they lived (“to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me”), but those who chose to love God and keep his commandments would receive God’s blessing “to a thousand generations” (Ex. 20:5-6).

Perhaps the most prominent curses to be found in the Old Testament were the curses in Deuteronomy 27-28. This was a list of scenarios in which people would reject God’s law and suffer the consequences. This list of curses, given on Mount Ebal, was to serve as a one side of the coin, with a list of blessings, given on Mount Gerizim, describing what would come to those who followed God’s law. When ancient Israel broke the covenant they had made with God, these curses came upon them later in the Old Testament. Since these curses affected multiple generations (e.g., living in exile), there is a sense in which they were generational curses.

An interesting, seemingly random, curse in the law of Moses went like this: “Anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse” (Deut. 21:23). We’ll get back to this curse in a minute.

What curses do we find in the New Testament?

The focus on blessings over curses is even more tilted toward blessing in the New Testament. Still, we do find some curses: Jesus curses a fig tree to show his disciples a parable of fruitlessness. Peter calls down curses when he’s attempting to deny knowing Jesus. Those who preach a different gospel are “under God’s curse” (Gal. 1:8).

“Cursed” is also taken in the New Testament as a synonym for being eternally lost. Jesus calls those who had done nothing to help the least of these “cursed” and eternally lost. Paul writes, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Rom. 9:3).

Are there generational curses? “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people.”

All humans have failed to follow God’s law—whether the Israelites failing to follow the law of Moses or everyone else failing to follow the law written on our hearts (see Romans 2:14-15). In this way, we are all by default under a curse. Summarizing the “curse” section of Deuteronomy 27-28, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26, saying, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Gal. 3:10). Here again, we see a generational curse of sorts stemming from our original fallen ancestors.

Although this doesn’t mean we should feel guilt for our ancestors’ sins, we do inherit a proclivity and propensity to sin, which theologian Michael Strickland argues is well-described in the term “ancestral sin” (as more accurate than saying that we are born with their “original sin”). The good news is that, even though this ancestral sin is passed from generation to generation, Jesus broke the power of this millennia-long generational curse for all who place faith in him. As Paul put it,

“Just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19)

Are there generational curses? “So also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

We don’t have to remain under this curse, for “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 pole’” (Gal. 3:13). This allusion to Deuteronomy 21:23 makes sense of this otherwise strange verse in the law of Moses, for it was as Jesus hung on the cross that he took our curse upon himself.

What is the Bible’s attitude toward curses not from God?

Whenever someone is under God’s curse, there’s reason for great fear. We are all by default in this precarious place, given Paul’s explanation that we’re all under a curse as lawbreakers. This is why we need Jesus’ intervention so desperately.

Yet, when it comes to curses uttered by humans, there isn’t this same reason for fear. When cursed by his enemy Shimei, David didn’t react with paranoia or vengeance, because he reasoned that God would deal whatever was right (2 Sam. 16:12). Similarly, in the New Testament, we are told to “bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28). “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rom. 12:14). “When we are cursed, we bless” (1 Cor. 4:12).

Are there generational curses? “When we are cursed, we bless.”

These passages underscore what separates the worldview of God’s people from the typical pagan worldview of the Ancient Near East. We don’t take human incantations as something that we need to revoke with our own curse-removing rituals. We don’t believe in gods who can be manipulated to act through curses. Rather, we trust in a sovereign God who tends toward mercy and loves to bless those who follow him. It is because we trust in him that we are able to respond to curses with blessings.

If our faith is in Jesus, what becomes of generational curses?

There’s no human way of getting around the baggage our ancestors have left us with. Even with our best efforts, we still end up adding baggage of our own for the next generation. Practitioners in helping people engage in spiritual warfare talk about the impact of intergenerational sin on people’s lives. With all this going against humanity, what do you do? Especially if you can pinpoint generational sins in your family which seem to be claiming you as the next domino to fall?

Here are a couple reasons you don’t have to be the next domino.

1. God’s grace is greater than any generational curses.

Ezekiel 18 describes a scenario in which a father does terrible things: He cheats on his wife, takes advantage of the poor, steals, worships idols. Ezekiel asks, “But suppose [he] has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees them, he does not do such things” (Ez. 18:14). What will happen to the son? “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live” (Ez. 18:17b).

By God’s grace, we can choose a different legacy than the broken one given to us.

In fact, by God’s grace, we can choose a different legacy than the one we started out creating. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 describes people who were promiscuous drunks who lied and swindled—and who “were washed…sanctified…justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

2. Jesus’ power is greater than any generational curses.

In the Gospels, we see times when Jesus’ power makes people stop being afraid of whatever they were afraid of—only to start becoming afraid of Jesus. For example, the disciples were on a boat terrified of a storm—until Jesus calmed the storm and they found themselves wide-eyed and trembling, asking, “Who is this guy?”

Another time, Jesus casts a group of demons out of somebody who had been terrorizing a region. When the people of the region saw the demon-possessed man sitting, dressed, and in his right mind, they looked at Jesus and suddenly became very afraid.

Are there generational curses? “Whatever you’re afraid of, it’s way more afraid of Jesus than you are of it.”

The point is this: Whatever you’re afraid of, it’s way more afraid of Jesus than you are of it. Keep running to Jesus, casting whatever frightens you at his feet, and trust his power to deliver you.