When we do something wrong, can others end up getting hurt because of our bad decisions? You bet! The number of fatalities each year caused by drunk drivers is testament to this. But what about when we sin against God? If you break His Law in such a way that it does not immediately spell injury to someone else (like murder), would God cause other people to suffer and die until you repented? Be careful how quickly you answer that question. In the book of Joshua there is the well-known story of Israel's victory at Jericho, immediately followed by their defeat at Ai. And most of us remember the reason for the defeat: a man named Achan had taken some of the forbidden spoils of Jericho that were to be totally devoted to destruction. What we don't usually immediately consider, however, are those thirty-six men who died in the initial attack on the city of Ai (Joshua 7:5). It is made clear to us that these men died because of the unrepentant sin of Achan (verses 11-12). The sticky part of all of this is that those thirty-six men had no idea about what Achan had done. One man sins against the Lord and thirty-six others who are unrelated to the sin pay with their lives. Is this fair?
Some might be quick to point out passages like Ezekiel 18:1-4
The word of the LORD came to me: "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge'? As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.
Isn't what God is saying in Ezekiel 18 a direct contradiction to what He did in Joshua 7? Not when we rightly understand the sentiment that God is countering by telling Ezekiel that Israel shall no longer repeat their proverb. The Israelites of Ezekiel's day were not taking responsibility for their own sin. They were wailing and complaining that they were being punished for their fathers' sins while they themselves were innocent. That was not the case. God does not pour out wrath on innocent people (except for when Christ became sin for us). If a person dies, it is because he was a sinner.
The thirty-six men who died in Joshua chapter 7 were not innocent men. They had not personally committed Achan's sin, but they were guilty of sin all on their own. God was not unjust in deferring His righteous judgment on them until the moment when it best suited His purposes. In that case, it served as a clear indicator to the people of Israel that there was sin in the camp.
God is certainly within His rights to work things out in this way. Since "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and since "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), that means every single human being is on death row, so to speak. And the Righteous Judge can enact the sentence whenever He wants. The condemned may cry, "Unfair!", but they would be wrong.
The scariest part of all of this to me, however, comes when I think about the church. How many like Achan do we have secreting away their sins in our congregations? Worse, how many in our churches are guilty of sins that we know ought to be disciplined by the church according to Matthew 18:15-20 and yet we do not because we are weak and cowardly, caring more about what men think of us than God? How many of our churches experience stunted growth - a jarring halt to the conquest of the world with the Gospel - because of all of the forbidden spoil in our midst?