Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life last November by a reader named Ya’meen fisher:
Is getting tattoos a sin and will god accept you?
Recently a reader named Sunshine submitted another Spiritual Conundrum on the same subject:
Me & my boyfriend have the same religion but different views on it. To be more detail we are both Christian but he is more of we need to go to church class and church every Sunday and I believe in the fact that I don’t need to go to church every Sunday because my god knows that I love him and I don’t need to go to church to show him this. Our big issue right now is the fact that I wanna get a tattoo. As a Christian he believes that your body is a temple witch I agree with but I also feel that my body is my temple and I can decorate however I want. I hope you can help me with my question.
Thanks for the good questions!
Here is the only place in the Bible that makes a clear statement about tattoos—using the old King James Version translation that many traditional Christians prefer:
Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:28)
It is based almost entirely on this verse that many Christians and Jews believe that getting a tattoo is wrong and sinful. Some Christians also think that the famous “mark of the beast” in the book of Revelation is a tattoo.
So is getting tattoos a sin against God?
Let’s take a closer look.
Why did Leviticus prohibit tattoos?
If a commandment is given in the Bible, there’s a reason for it. However, the reason isn’t always obvious. Also, not every commandment in the Bible is a universal law for all time. Many commandments relate to particular issues and practices in the cultures of the Bible.
The commandment in Leviticus 19:28 not to put marks on one’s body is part of the “Holiness Code” given in Leviticus chapters 17–26, which contains several lists of laws that the ancient Israelites were to observe. The opening verses of chapter 18 put these laws into perspective:
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God.’” (Leviticus 18:1–4)
And the list of laws in chapter 18 concludes with these words:
“‘Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws.” (Leviticus 18:24–26)
In other words, these laws are given to set the Israelites apart from the Egyptians, among whom they had been slaves for several generations, and from the pagan nations inhabiting the land of Canaan (Palestine), which was to become their new homeland.
Why didn’t God want the Israelites to follow the practices of these other nations? The first two of the Ten Commandments provide the answer:
And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:1–6)
Early Jewish commentaries on Leviticus 19:28 commonly interpret the commandment not to put marks on one’s body as a commandment to avoid the idolatrous practices of the surrounding pagan nations, who marked their bodies with images of their gods, and with symbols related to pagan practices in service of those gods.
In other words, the prohibition on tattoos was an extension of the commandments not to worship other gods and not to make and worship idols. Since the ancient Israelites were very prone to worshiping other gods, they were prohibited from making marks on their bodies as the nations around them did in devotion to their gods.
The mark of the beast
The famous or infamous “mark of the beast” in the book of Revelation (see Revelation 13:16–17, 14:9–11, 15: 2, 16:2, 19:19–20, 20:4) is an example of marking one’s body in devotion to a powerful, godlike figure:
Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. (Revelation 13:16–17)
The “mark of the beast” was an indication that the people with the mark on them accepted the beast’s authority.
During the dark times described figuratively in the book of Revelation, anyone who did not receive this mark on their hand or their forehead would not be allowed to do any business. However, when God and the angels defeated the evil beast, the people who received the mark of the beast would be destroyed along with the beast itself, while those who had refused to receive the mark would be saved.
This “mark of the beast” might be a tattoo. But it is more likely a contrarian reference to a commandment given to the ancient Israelites:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. (Deuteronomy 6:4–8, italics added)
This is not talking about tattoos. Tattoos were forbidden to the ancient Israelites.
Instead, when taken literally they were the “phylacteries,” or “tefillin,” that Jesus mentioned in the New Testament (Matthew 23:5): small leather boxes containing parchments with verses from the Torah, or Law of Moses, worn by observant Jews on their foreheads and hands as part of their religious rituals. These have the same function for Jews as tattoos did for the various pagan nations: showing their devotion to their God and to his commandments.
In short, the “mark of the beast” in Revelation provides further support for the idea that the ancient Israelite prohibition on tattoos was an extension of the prohibition against worshiping other gods and making images of them.
Christians and the Holiness Code
Today, most Christians believe that Christ fulfilled the Old Testament Law, so that Christians no longer have to observe the ancient Jewish ritual and sacrificial laws. Christians are no longer required to sacrifice animals, avoid eating certain ritually unclean foods, engage in purification rituals when they have touched a dead body, and so on.
Of course, some of the laws in the Holiness Code and elsewhere in the Old Testament Law are still in effect, such as:
Do not steal.
Do not lie.
Do not deceive one another.
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.
Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. (Leviticus 19:11–13)
But what about these laws given in the same chapter?
Do not mate different kinds of animals.
Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.
Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. (Leviticus 19:19)
Most Christians agree that we are no longer bound to observe these laws.
Deciding which laws in the Bible we must still obey and which were due to particular cultural issues of Bible times that are no longer in force today can be a tricky business.
The main point is, just because a law is given in the Bible, that doesn’t necessarily mean it applies to all people in all times. Today, very few people in predominantly Christian areas of the world are tempted to worship pagan gods. So for most present-day Christians, there is no need for the ancient Israelite prohibition against tattoos.
Your body is a temple
There is one other type of Bible passage that Christians sometimes quote to say that getting tattoos is wrong and sinful:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
Our body is a temple, these teachings say, and we should use it to honor God.
Even Christians who admit that the Old Testament law against tattoos doesn’t necessarily apply anymore may point to passages such as these and say that we still shouldn’t get tattoos because they’re associated with criminal gangs, prisoners, and other disreputable types.
This argument does have some merit. At various times, in various cultures, tattoos have been associated with people who flout the law and thumb their noses at God. That is exactly why tattoos were prohibited to the ancient Israelites: because they were associated with violating God’s commandments and worshiping other gods.
But what if, in a particular culture, tattoos aren’t associated with lawbreakers, rebels, and godless evildoers?
Many cultures have used tattoos to indicate social position and devotion to the culture and practices of the tribe.
This isn’t limited to pagan cultures. There is a long tradition in the United States and Great Britain of sailors and soldiers getting tattoos to show their dedication to their units and to God and country. Have all of these sailors and soldiers been thumbing their nose at God by getting tattoos of the insignia of their units—or even of Bible verses meant to remind them of God’s presence and power?
Tattoos: good or bad?
The meaning of tattoos all depends on how they function within the person’s culture.
Obviously if we figuratively get “the mark of the beast” by getting ourselves tattooed with satanic symbols and images glorifying blood, gore, and other evil and disgusting things, then we’re wandering into a serious gray area. If we’re getting ourselves tattooed with gang insignias showing our readiness to attack and kill anyone who gets in the way of our particular ring of criminals, that is definitely not a good thing. Some tattoos are meant to be scary, threatening, and defiant. From a Christian and spiritual perspective, such tattoos are a real problem.
But that’s not the sort of tattoos most people are getting these days.
Today, tattoos are becoming more and more popular in Western society. There’s a tattoo parlor on every street corner. And young people, especially, are flocking to them to get tattoos displaying their individuality and their ideals on their bodies.
They’re not going into the tattoo parlor thinking, “Ha! I’m gonna thumb my nose at God!” In fact, as I mentioned earlier, many people tattoo themselves with Bible verses in order to remind themselves and others of God’s presence. They are using the “temple of their body” to praise and show devotion to God.
Others get tattoos of flowers, trees, animals, and other beautiful things from the world of nature that God created. Still others get geometrical designs, or tattoo the names of loved ones on their bodies.
Is it evil and sinful for people in today’s culture to get tattoos?
I don’t think so.
Most tattoos that people get today are positive affirmations of life, and yes, even of God.
Though there are still those who get tattoos to display their devotion to evil, in today’s popular culture tattoos have taken on a different meaning. And although I personally am from a generation and culture that mostly preferred to keep the body tattoo-free, I recognize that the meaning of tattoos changes according to the particular culture of the times.
In ancient Israelite culture, tattoos meant disobeying the Lord their God and devoting themselves to other gods. That’s why tattoos were prohibited to them.
But today tattoos mean something very different for most people. And if a tattoo is meant to be positive and life-affirming, and even to show appreciation for the good things that come from God, it does not violate the spirit of that ancient law against tattoos, whose purpose was to keep the people of that culture devoted to the God of the universe.
Is getting tattoos a sin against God?
Not if the tattoo honors the love, wisdom, and power of God as expressed in the Bible and in God’s creation. And not if it displays our love for our fellow human beings.
So if you are thinking of getting a tattoo, think of what the tattoo means, and of what messages it will send to the people around you.
And don’t forget that you’re going to have it for a long, long time!
This article is a response to two spiritual conundrums submitted by readers.
For further reading:
- How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads
- It’s not fair that God made some people incredibly beautiful, and others just average!
- Will My Body be the Right Weight and Appearance in the Afterlife?
- The Bible: Literal Inerrancy vs. Divine Depths of Meaning
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth