What Does The Bible Say About Tattoos?
The only direct mention of tattoos in the Bible is in Leviticus 19: 28. That is part of what is called the Old Testament Law or the Old Covenant or the Law of Moses (which is essentially the hundreds of rules and regulations God sent down through Moses for the Hebrews to live by after they were freed from slavery in Egypt, as recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).
You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19: 28 [ESV]
In that verse God not only gave the instruction against tattoos (and scaring the body through cutting) but also gave the reason why He was forbidding it. In the land which the Hebrews conquered (through God’s divine interference), there were many religious customs which the Lord absolutely forbade the Hebrews to participate in. Among those were child sacrifices. Another prevalent practice was ancestor worship, with the scaring or tattooing of the ancestor you worshipped being permanently stamped on your body in a visible place.
God did not want anyone to see a tattoo on a Hebrew and mistake it as a sign that they were worshipping some ancestor or some other god. This regulation fell into a long list of rules God provided which were designed to make the Hebrews stand out from the people around them, in how they dressed, ate and practiced religious services. Today, though, through the power of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christians are to stand out based on our character and our actions.
Christians live under the New Covenant (the Covenant of Christ, established in His blood) and are, therefore, no longer under the specific rules and regulations found in the Old Covenant, covered in the those first few books of the Bible.
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Luke 22: 19 – 20 [ESV]
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. … In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Hebrews 8: 6 – 7, 13 [ESV]
The answer to the question about whether or not tattoos are permitted by the Bible today is almost an easy “why yes they are”. But there are a few more elements we need to address. First, in the writings of the New Covenant, we are told that, though we are not bound by the Old Covenant any longer, all of scripture (the Old and New Testaments) are still useful to us.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. II Timothy 3: 16 – 17 [ESV]
What then is the profitable teaching we are to take from Leviticus 19: 28? That we must not allow a tattoo (body piercing, piece of jewelry, etc.) to cause people to mistakenly associate us with something ungodly. Therefore, tattoos of swastikas, gang symbols, racist signs, cuss words, nudity, etc are not allowed.
The second conditional factor relates to one of the grand themes of the New Testament teachings of Christ and His Disciples – that Christians must not seek to stand out or draw attention to themselves based on how they look or what they wear, that what should define us is our character and not our outer adornment.
Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. I Peter 3: 3 – 4 [ESV]
And finally, there is Paul’s warning in first Corinthians
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. I Corinthians 6: 12
It is possible to become “addicted” to activities (rituals) such as getting a tattoo. And in cases where it becomes a habit or an addiction, it is always sinful.
So getting a tattoo in and of itself is not a sin according the Bible in the New Testament age in which we live. But as with most things in our lives, what we do may not be sinful on its own but our motivation for doing it may well be sinful. If you are seeking to show your highest allegiance to anything or anyone other than God, it would be biblically wrong to get a tattoo. If you are seeking to stand out for purely vain or cosmetic reasons, it would be biblically wrong to get a tattoo or if you have become addicted to the process as it helps to fill some hole in your life or soothe some of life’s discomforts, it would be biblically wrong.
Andy’s book, Clear Vision: How The Bible Teaches Us To View The World, can be purchased here.