What is a proper, biblically based view on getting tattoos? I know that many people use Leviticus 19:28 as a biblical foundation against getting tattoos, but in context these rules seem to be God’s directives to keep Israel from practicing the pagan religion & rituals of neighbouring cultures. Another verse commonly used, is, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 which says, “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.” I believe this verse makes a strong call for Christians to think about what and why they want to get something tattooed on their body. However, I don’t think that all tattoos (regardless of content) bring dishonor to God with our bodies.
With this in mind, how should Christians view getting tattoos? What biblical foundation (if any) is there that should prevent Christians from getting tattoos? Is getting a tattoo a sin?
Charles Darwin noted in his book, “The Descent of Man” that, “Not one great country can be named, from the Polar regions in the north to New Zealand in the south, in which the aborigines do not tattoo themselves.” It was the great age of Christian missions that almost erased this primitive practice. Some tattooing promoters view the work of missionaries and Christian conversions as a “destructive Western influence” which was responsible for a worldwide decline in tattooing during the 19th century. For most of the 20th century, tattoos were a statement of non-conformity, embraced by mainly criminals, prostitutes or wayfaring sailors. In our day, as the influence of Christianity has declined, tattooing has again gained mainstream popularity. Psychologist and tattoo advocate Michael Mantell writes that, “Tattoos are a mark of the 21st century,” and that these tattoos send a strong message, writing that “…tattoo-lovers are a proud lot- they have consciously taken the decision to tattoo their bodies and would like to proudly declare that they are what they are.”
Charles Darwin did, however, forget about one unique group that did not practice tattooing: the ancient Hebrews. “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:28). For thousands of years, believers knew that they were to avoid practices such as tattooing.
In recent decades, however, many question the applicability of this verse to New Testament Christians. It is surrounded by verses that would bind Christians to the orthodox Jewish practice of growing long beards and sideburns (19:27) and prohibit clothing that blends different materials (19:19). If a Christian cannot get a tattoo, they reason, than we must change many other things in our lifestyle as well and visibly become like orthodox Jews.
A stronger approach to the Bible, however, will not ignore the principle behind these verses in God’s law. These were important verses which taught the Hebrews how to live as a separate people in their own time and place. Each example in Leviticus is an outworking of the principles of the ten commandments. The reason for non-conformity is simple, “I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:28). We also, as Christians, serve the same Lord, and are called to be a holy people for Him (1 Peter 1:16). We, like the Hebrews, should avoid practices that visibly alter our appearance for the sake of conformity to the world or pride.
Many New Testament verses teach this same principle, applying it at times even to our literal, physical bodies, “…present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:1-2). James 1:27 is even more striking, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
Those that embrace tattooing, however, will claim that this is too literal of a reading of Romans and James. The practice itself, they claim, is an art form that is no longer associated with paganism, but can even be redeemed and used for God’s glory. Yet we cannot accept this logic: if the association with paganism is no longer there, why are tattoo parlors still to this day invariably filled with symbols of violence, death, and the occult? Why does the world itself see tattooing as an act of individualistic pride? What lies beneath the universal pagan desire to injure, modify, and scar?
The medical and psychological concerns surrounding tattooing cannot be overlooked. Many people do not realize that the immune system actually treats a tattoo as an infection. The reason that tattoos fade is that the body is constantly working to reject it, and will do so for the rest of their lives. Studies have shown that many people experience medical complications that can lead to life threatening conditions. The Food and Drug Administration in the US has found that the use of unapproved inks and poor sanitary practices is still a widespread problem and their website lists a number of issues of concern and associated risks which discourage the practice of tattooing. Researchers have observed links between tattooing and extreme body piercing with higher incidences of clinical depression.
Such concerns, along with the significant pain that the process causes, ought to make us think more deeply about tattooing. Is it not a practice rooted in a misguided, abusive, and sinful desire to break what God has created? When we understand the history and the reality of tattooing, the practice has striking parallels to the fall. It is at the fall that we see mankind’s desire to be like gods. When Adam and Eve fell into sin, their first reaction was a shame-filled feeling of nakedness. Why would a Christian desire that tattoos would cover the skin their Creator has made? Is there not a much greater covering available, that which is provided by the “…Lamb without blemish and without spot” of 1 Peter 1:19?