Should Christians Get Tattoos?
Having a tattoo is becoming more popular. Is getting a tattoo wrong? Did Jesus have a tattoo? Have you ever asked yourself, “Should I get a tattoo?”
Getting a tattoo (or tat, ink, body art—whatever term you may choose to call it) is becoming increasingly popular today. The practice used to be more limited to people like sailors, military men, prison inmates or gang members.
But today people from all walks of life are lining up at tattoo parlors. In fact, a 2019 Ipsos poll showed that around 30 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo—and that’s up from 21 percent just a decade ago.
Why are so many getting tattoos?
Why do so many people pay, often a lot, to have ink inserted under their skin by the needles of a tattoo machine? Some do use them to cover scars or a skin deformity, but most would probably cite other reasons for getting a tattoo. Many get them to be fashionable or trendy because of friends or celebrities.
Others feel it is a form of personal expression.
Some even use tattoos to commemorate significant life events (like marriage, the death of a loved one or the birth of a child). One individual commented, “My body is a book, and my tattoos tell my story.”
Tattoos and the meaning of Leviticus 19:28
Christians shouldn’t make decisions, such as whether or not to get a tattoo, based on what is popular or what celebrities do. Instead, they should look to biblical instructions and principles for guidance.
So, what does the Bible say about permanently marking our skin?
Leviticus 19:28 seems to specifically address the subject. God instructed the people of Israel: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.”
God instructed the people of Israel: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.” While this seems pretty clear at face value, scholars and commentaries have varied views of what was intended.
For example, some believe it refers only to pagan customs for the dead.
For example, the writers of the Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary believe that there is nothing “morally wrong” with tattooing, but that “these practices then, and also now in some places, were parts of heathen ritual” (Vol. 1, 1994, p. 150).
Other commentaries disagree.
The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament says in its comment on this verse: “The prohibition . . . of tattooing . . . had no reference to idolatrous usages, but was intended to inculcate upon the Israelites a proper reverence for God’s creation.”
The common Jewish understanding of this command is that “the prohibition against all forms of tattooing regardless of their intent, should be maintained” (MyJewishLearning.com, “Tattooing in Jewish Law”).
The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary adds: “In Lev. 19:28 we find two prohibitions of an unnatural disfigurement of the body: ‘You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead, nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves.’ The latter (Heb. qa’aqa, ‘incision’) has no reference to idolatrous usages, but was intended to implant upon the Israelites a proper reverence for God’s creation” (1988, “Mark,” p. 815).
Which is correct? Is it only a reference to pagan religious practices? Or is it a more general prohibition focusing on a respect for the body as God created it?
God’s design for our bodies
An important Bible study key is to consider the context rather than pull a single verse from Scripture to support your position.
In Leviticus 19 God gives the Israelites strict guidelines for living a holy life, so that they can serve as God’s model example for the whole world (verse 2). Throughout the chapter, God inspired Moses to include a wide variety of practices and behaviors He wanted them to avoid. Verse 19 is in the midst of that list. By context alone, we should immediately see this is a practice Christians should be very wary of!
Other things mentioned in the chapter include:
Jesus told His followers to be lights—shining examples—and glorify God the Father by their example.Not stealing or lying (verse 11).
Not cheating others (verse 13).
Not mistreating the disabled (verse 14).
Not gossiping (verse 16).
Not sleeping with a woman who is engaged to another man (verse 20).
Not practicing divination or prostitution (verses 26, 29, 31).
Honoring the elderly (verse 32).
Showing honesty in all business dealings (verses 35-36).
These instructions are still applicable today, and hopefully Christians wouldn’t argue against them.
What is the broader principle being conveyed in this chapter?
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul tells us something to keep in mind about the human body. In the context of sexual immorality, he said: “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Only human beings were created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). First, this tells us that we were given creative minds that can learn, love, build relationships and invest ourselves in our work just as our Creator does.
It also means that we resemble God in our appearance. Rather than view our skin as a book with blank pages, we are to respect our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, created in God’s image and likeness.
To learn more, read “What Does It Mean to Be Made in ‘the Image of God’?”
Did Jesus have a tattoo?
Since Jesus obeyed God’s law and never sinned (1 Peter 2:22), we can confidently state that Jesus Christ had no tattoos. He would have lived by and obeyed the commandments of Leviticus 19, even to their full spiritual intent, in His life.
He would have never worshipped any other god (Leviticus 19:4; Matthew 4:10), just as He would have never made cuttings in His skin for the dead or tattooed any marks on His body (Leviticus 19:28).
Of course, we should remember that one of the basic definitions of genuine Christianity is carefully following in Jesus’ footsteps (1 Peter 2:21).
To learn more about the importance of following Christ’s example, read “Walk as He Walked.”
Problems with tattoos
As with virtually any procedure that breaches the protective barrier of our skin, there are certain health risks with getting a tattoo. A 2019 article in Time magazine, “The Risks of Getting a Tattoo Are Rare, but Real. Here’s What to Know,” outlines some recent studies and cases involving tattoos and common bad reactions to them.
It is always wise to consider the potential consequences.
Unlike jewelry that can be removed, a tattoo is permanent, and visible tattoos can be a hindrance or barrier in certain lines of employment.
Many people who get tattoos when they are younger come to bitterly regret the decision when they are older. In fact, tattoo removal is a major industry in the United States, but it is costly—often in the multiple hundreds or even thousands of dollars!
For jobs that involve face-to-face customer relations, employers can be less open to hiring people with tattoos on commonly exposed areas like arms, neck, face and legs. You may want to check out this web page: “Tattoos in the Workplace: Which Jobs Can’t You Get With a Tattoo?”
The reason people with visible tattoos often have a more difficult time getting these jobs is the general public perception of tattoos. While it can be argued that more young professionals are getting tattooed, there is still an overall public perception that tattoos represent unprofessional or fringe elements of society.
Christians represent God to the world
A final point to consider is the example God expects His people to set for the world.
Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:20: “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” God’s Word Translation renders it, “We are Christ’s representatives.” Christians are to be representatives of the Creator God in word, deed and conduct.
Jesus told His followers to be lights—shining examples—and glorify God the Father by their example. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His followers to be lights—shining examples—and glorify God the Father (Matthew 5:14-16).
And Paul used the same analogy in Philippians 2:15 when he wrote, “That you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”
Given the perception about tattoos of a large percentage of the population—not to mention the content or wording of the designs themselves—can we say tattooed Christians are good representatives of our pure and great God?
To learn more about the importance of a Christian’s example, read “Ambassadors of Christ.”
How should a Christian approach the decision about whether to get a tattoo?
Scholars may debate whether the instructions in Leviticus 19:28 refer only to pagan religious practices or to the practice of getting tattoos in general. But when combined with the other biblical principles, it’s clear that God did not design the human body as a canvas to be permanently marked by tattoos—regardless of whether a person is well-intentioned or not.
Christians should take the opposite approach, and work to stay as far away from anything that could be sinful, ill-advised or that could reflect poorly on the God we represent. We are instructed to “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
We believe it is wise for Christians to heed the instructions of Leviticus 19:28 and the other biblical principles and avoid getting tattoos.
For more insight on this topic, read “What Does the Bible Say About Tattoos?”
Topics Covered: Social Issues