Is Getting Tattoos a Sin against God?

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:

Geometric and floral tattoo

Geometric and floral tattoo

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)

Egyptian-style tattoo

Egyptian-style tattoo

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)

And:

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.

U.S. Navy tattoo

U.S. Navy tattoo

Bible verse tattoo

Bible verse tattoo

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.

Butterfly tattoo

Butterfly tattoo

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:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Popular Culture
22 comments on “Is Getting Tattoos a Sin against God?
  1. anonymous says:

    My grandmother doesn’t like tattoos, or people who dress in black but she’s an excellent person. She only sees the good in me and became upset for months when i told her that I hated her when I was a teenager. She is a Catholic but she doesn’t even say “hell”, she calls it “that place” and says that people who sin go there to experience their sins for all eternity… Sound kind of like my grandmother is the Swedenborg of this century.

  2. Eva says:

    My tattoo is the word ‘agape’, that reminds me of a mystical experience thst I had; one that helped me on my journey to become a christian. It reminds me of God’s overwhelming and unconditional love, and that I should do my best to emulate that in my dealings with other people. Its also opened up many conversations about my conversion, as people are interested to know what it means.

  3. rosebudx0 says:

    In the future, I’m thinking of getting quite a bit of piercings on my ears and perhaps a septum and nostril piercing. That’s it, really. When I look towards my intention, I don’t see it as a way of disgracing God/piercings being inherently evil. It’s like how people say money isn’t inherently evil. It’s the way you use it or your intention about it. I also don’t really see it as a way of glorifying either. Keep in mind though, that I don’t want to do this to please or impress others.

    Is there anything in the Bible that says to not pierce yourself?

    • Lee says:

      Hi rosebudx0,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comments and questions.

      Piercing is not prohibited in the Bible, though in one instance (Exodus 21:2–6) piercing a person’s ear is done as a symbol of voluntary servitude. So piercings have sometimes been interpreted as something that isn’t ideal.

      However, women in Bible times did commonly wear jewelry such as nose rings that would have required body piercings. See, for example the story of Rebekah becoming Isaac’s wife in Genesis 24, especially verses 22 and 30. I should add that some modern feminist-leaning interpreters consider these nose rings also to be a sign of the woman’s servitude to her husband, and therefore think they are a bad thing. You’ll have to make up your own mind what you think about that. I doubt that Rebekah herself thought these gifts of expensive and presumably very beautiful jewelry were a bad thing! 😉

      Today we live in very different times and a very different culture. My own view, as expressed in the article above, is that the various rules and prohibitions about body adornment, diet, and lifestyle given in the Bible were adapted to the cultures of the time, and for the most part aren’t meant to be universal rules for all cultures in all times. Today we have to decide about these physical practices and expressions based on our own society, culture, and views of life.

      • rosebudx0 says:

        Very true! What you mentioned about some feminists saying the nose ring is bad because it’s supposedly seen as a sign of servitude to the husband is so silly. I’ve never heard of that, but wow. xD

        Thank you so much for answering and making this website in general. I found this website not too long ago when I was google searching on the trinity and how science & God can intertwine. These are all very interesting insights and so new to me as I’ve never heard of this ‘Swedenborg’ person and I’ve always grown up with the Trinity idea.

        I myself have grown up into a Christian home and still choose to be Christian upon my own choice. What I love about my parents is that they never discouraged me to learn and expand beyond what I may already know. That’s one of the worst things you can do to yourself: To deprive and isolate yourself only to what you know/grew up knowing. I’m only 18 so I still have lots to learn and a lot more of life to walk, but I do know one thing: I want to please God and learn all about Him as much as I can while leading a life as close to Him as I can. 🙂

        • Lee says:

          Hi rosebudx0,

          You’re very welcome! It’s good to hear that your parents are open-minded and encouraging. And I’m glad this website is helping you and giving you some new insight and inspiration. About Swedenborg, here’s a link with a video that will give you some of the basics: Who was Swedenborg? What Should I Read? And of course, if you have any further questions along the way, please don’t hesitate to ask.

        • rosebudx0 says:

          Thank you! I also have a question. For years I’ve always been intrigued by the book of Revelation and what certain things stand for. Though no matter how much I read it, I always feel unnerved. xD I’m really wondering who the beasts mentioned are, and what the number 666 means. It says that that is it’s name. Do you have any articles that discuss or go into depth about this part of the Bible?

        • Lee says:

          Hi rosebudx0,

          Good question. I haven’t yet done a lot on the book of Revelation, but about the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment, please see: Is the World Coming to an End? What about the Second Coming?

          And see also: How Big is the New Jerusalem?

          The book of Revelation is not about physical events that will take place in this world, but about spiritual events that John saw taking place in “heaven,” while he was “in the spirit.” For more on this, see the comments sections on the above-linked articles.

          The number 666 represents, in a negative sense, the total destruction of Christian doctrine by centuries of false teachings in the institutional Christian church. The beasts represent various branches of the corrupted Christian church. Swedenborg does explain the book of Revelation in great detail. In the future I hope to write more articles about this fascinating and largely misunderstood book!

        • rosebudx0 says:

          One thing I forgot to include: One thing I’ve heard is that apparently the word used in Islam for God, “Allah”, the letters used for it are remarkably similar to the Greek letters to 666.

        • Lee says:

          Hi rosebudx0,

          There is a very long list of historical and current people that various sects and religious leaders have said 666 refers to, starting with the Roman emperor Nero and going all the way to U.S. President Obama. With a bit of ingenuity, you can make that number mean almost anyone. If someone decided that you were the Antichrist, they could probably figure out a way that the number 666 works out to mean your name. 😉

          Don’t believe any of them. As I said in my reply to your previous comment, the book of Revelation is not talking about people and events in this world, but about events in the spiritual world.

        • rosebudx0 says:

          That’s true! So then if I got this correctly: Technically the events in Revelations already happened in the spiritual world? If that’s the thing, will we mainly just see God when it’s finally our time to part from Earth?

        • Lee says:

          Hi rosebudx0,

          Yes, that is how my church understands the book of Revelation. We don’t believe any of it is going to take place physically in this world. And though some people do have direct experiences of God / Jesus here on earth, for most of us yes, that will happen only after we die, when we go to the spiritual world and to heaven.

        • rosebudx0 says:

          Low-key jealous of those who get do have direct experience with them while alive, ha ha! xD Alas, I will meet Him when it’s time/whenever it’s within His will to.

          Now hopefully I’ll stop having nightmares about the second coming, LOL! That part of the Bible always shakes me up. One last thing from there that I found interesting as well is that the one writing said book wasn’t allowed to write down what the thunder said. It’s to remain a secret. UGH, God has made me with too much curiosity. xD Oh well! if we’re not meant to know, we’re simply not meant to know! ……………still….

        • Lee says:

          Hi rosebudx0,

          I figure God knows who needs a direct experience, and when.

          And yes, I hope understanding that there’s a spiritual meaning behind the stories in Revelation and elsewhere in the Bible about “the end of the world” (which really should be translated “the end of the age”) will be an effective nightmare antidote! 😉

          And yes, as much as we humans may learn, there will always be more that we don’t know and have yet to learn and understand. That’s the glory of being human! There’s never an end to our growth and development in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

        • rosebudx0 says:

          I agree! I also have other questions. Is Swedenborgianism part of the New Age?? Because I tend to disagree with most if not all of their teachings like how you can become your own God and that everything (the trees, flowers, EVERYTHING) is God rather than said things just being a creatION from God. God is the creatOR and the bible does in fact touch on being careful not to worship the creation or value that over God.

          Also, I’ve heard that celebrating holidays like Christmas, Halloween, and Easter aren’t very Christ like. Christmas because it’s not actually on Jesus’ birthday and that it was on the same day as a pagans holiday. As well as Santa supposedly being related to the pagan God Chemosh.. Though the fact that they both are similar in some cases, they’re not the same at all.

          Halloween because it is known that certain activity like witch craft and other things of that nature are most performed as well as the things that characterize Halloween not being very “holy” or Christ like per se. Though I HAVE heard of a day called All Hallows’ Eve which I think is a Christian holiday.. Correct me if I’m wrong!

          Easter because the egg, bunny, and I think something else supposedly

        • Lee says:

          Hi rosebudx0,

          No, Swedenborgianism is not part of the New Age movement, although Swedenborg did have an influence on it, as you can see here. The New Age movement began in the 1970s, two centuries after Swedenborg. And the Swedenborgian Church began in the late 1700s also. Some of our most liberal congregations do have some New-Age-leaning members, but our theology is solidly Christian, which the New Age movement does not accept.

        • rosebudx0 says:

          Have pagan origins in regards to some pagan God or something providing fertility.. Is it bad for us as Christians to celebrate holidays in such ways as going trick or treating and setting up Christmas trees and giving presents. Going Easter egg hunting

        • Lee says:

          Hi rosebudx0,

          Yes, our current Christian holidays do have a lot of pagan influence in them. Remember, the Christian church had its great growth and spread in pagan lands, where Peter, Paul, and other early apostles spent many years evangelizing. Historically, Christianity adapted and converted existing pagan holidays into Christian celebrations.

          Arch-conservative Christians often believe this is a terrible thing, and some of the most conservative don’t celebrate the various Christian holidays for this reason.

          Personally, I don’t think it’s a big deal. Paganism was mistaken about God, but on the positive side it did have a sense of spirit within nature that is generally lacking within Christianity. So although polytheistic pagan theology had to be overturned by Christianity, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that some of the pagan influence about spirit being present in nature made its way into Christianity.

          Unfortunately, I do believe that pagan polytheism also made its way into Christianity, as covered in this article: Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Polytheistic?

        • rosebudx0 says:

          Etc etc.. I apologize for multiple comments! For some reason when I try to click on a different part of the reply to fix something on my phone with my finger, it doesn’t let me type or anything from there after so I have to press send.

          Thanks so much! If I have any more questions I’ll be sure to ask. 😊

        • Lee says:

          Yes, I don’t even bother trying to post comments on the blog from my phone. Too much of a hassle. I do it all on the computer. But I do read new comments on my phone when I’m away from the computer.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Lee & Annette Woofenden

Lee & Annette Woofenden

Featured Book

Click to buy on Amazon

Join 818 other followers

Earlier Posts
Blog Stats
  • 1,353,137 hits
%d bloggers like this: