What is Inherited Guilt?

Michael Pollick

There is an ancient expression, found in several books of the Old Testament, which implies that the sinful acts of fathers (ancestors) will continue to haunt their sons (descendants). In essence, this is the precept behind inherited guilt, a condition in which future generations continue to bear some feelings of responsibility for the actions of their predecessors. The practice of slavery and its humiliating effects on the slaves' progeny, for example, is often mentioned as a case of inherited guilt for white people.

Some modern white Americans might have inherited guilt over slavery.
Some modern white Americans might have inherited guilt over slavery.

In a religious context, Adam and Eve's forbidden consumption of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is believed to have caused a nearly irreparable rift between God and mankind, a curse known as "original sin." Because of the actions taken by mankind's original ancestors, future generations must assume an inherited guilt for betraying God's commands. According to some Judeo-Christian philosophies, mankind must live in a sinful world as penance for the Original Sin committed by Adam and Eve.

Some modern Germans might have inherited guilt from Adolph Hitler's regime.
Some modern Germans might have inherited guilt from Adolph Hitler's regime.

In the case of slavery or the unfair treatment of Native Americans, many whites have expressed a need to atone for the actions of their ancestors, while others view these events as an unfortunate but immutable part of a flawed history. While some descendants of slaves or Native Americans may seek an official apology or even financial reparations for the sins of the past, others feel it would be unfair to compel one generation to atone for the sins of their ancestors by exploiting a sense of inherited guilt.

There are also several different approaches to the concept of inherited guilt from the original Fall of Man. Some Christians believe that the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God manifested in human form, has mended the rift between God and Man completely and we are no longer burdened with inherited guilt. Others suggest that mankind is still burdened with a sinful nature and inherited guilt, but the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ created a new covenant between God and those who actively seek His forgiveness.

Some believe inherited guilt should be allowed to die a natural death over the course of generations. Modern Germans who live with the inherited guilt of Hitler's genocidal regime or Russians who lost ancestors in Stalin's purges should be given the opportunity to heal from the sins of their fathers rather than continue living in the shadows of inherited guilt.

USSR leaders after Stalin inherited effects of his cruel regime.
USSR leaders after Stalin inherited effects of his cruel regime.

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Discussion Comments


My Church says that the Original Sin is actually not as we understand it. They say that the scripture was translated incorrectly in Christian history and was interpreted to mean that the sin of Adam and Eve have been transmitted to all humanity and all are guilty of it. Apparently the true scripture says that all humans were punished because they all sinned in some way. So we are not guilty of the original sin.

Other Churches and Christians sects don't believe this though. Since Adam and Eve were the first people and all people are their children, the fact that they failed the first test by God and sinned has repercussions on all of us.

I am not sure which is more correct because I haven't read the varying versions of Romans 5:12, 19 where this is stated. Both of the explanations make sense to some extent.

What do you think? Are we guilty for what Adam and Eve did?


I don't think that inherited guilt is good for anyone. If we concentrate on the past, it will become difficult to see our present and our future. I think the stories of the past and the mistakes of our ancestors are retold so that we can learn lessons from their mistakes, not so that we suffer from their actions.

I don't see a reason to feel guilty for what my ancestors might have done. In fact, I think that leadership- whether it is religious or political- benefit from the inherited guilt that they impose on the newer generations. I think it is easier for them to control people who already feel that they have done something wrong. Similarly, people whose ancestors were victims in history might be pushed to seek revenge from a generation that had nothing to do with it.

If we all think and act this way, no conflict, no war and no harm will ever end. It will continue living and it will be repeated over and over again. I don't think we should fall for this. We are responsible for our actions only and as long as we do our best to be good people and to treat others well, why should we be guilty?

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