Q: #108. Is it a sin to have a tattoo?
By: Steve Shirley
A: Update: When I first wrote this study about 11 years ago (in 2006), I had no idea that the number of people getting tattoos would explode to the numbers we are at today. This is especially true amongst young adults today, with polls showing that app. 40 - 50% now have tattoos. Tattooing has become more socially acceptable than it ever has been. However, so has things such as homosexuality, divorce, living together before marriage (fornication), etc.... which the Bible clearly condemns. Therefore, being socially acceptable is not necessarily a good thing. While tattoos may not fall into the same category as some of these other "socially acceptable" things the Bible CLEARLY calls "sin," it is important to know exactly what the Bible does say on tattoos. This being the case, I decided that it was important to update, and add to this study.
So, what exactly does the Bible have to say on the subject of tattooing? The answer is, not much. Two primary verses are used by those who believe tattooing is wrong.
(Lev 19:28) Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead,
nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.
** Modern translations like the NIV and NASB say you should not "put tattoo marks on yourselves" instead of "print any marks."
(Deut 14:1) Ye are the children of the Lord your God: ye shall not cut yourselves...
However, as a part of the "law," given specifically to the Israelites, these verses don't really apply to Christians today. We are no longer under the "law." (We are still under moral law, but not ceremonial law.) Instead, we have what is called Christian liberty. Paul speaks about this in NUMEROUS verses. Here are a few (Rom 6:14)(1 Cor 6:12)(Gal 5:1)(Rom 8:2)(Rom 7:6)(Rom 10:4)(Rom ch. 14)(Gal ch.3). In short, what this means is that if something is not clearly forbidden for Christians today, we are free to do it. However, Paul also notes in places like (1 Cor 8:9-13)(1 Cor 10:23-24)(Rom 14:13,15,21) that we should consider not using this liberty if it will cause someone to "stumble."
This being said, I think it is important to understand why God made this law in the first place. The primary reason appears to be that tattooing ones skin was done by the heathen and pagan cultures around God's chosen people. Interestingly, we can see actual examples of this today. As I was re-studying this subject, I came across the Smithsonian website, and it shows pictures of mummies with tattoos on them dating back from about 2000 B.C. to 5000 B.C.. The cultures from which these mummies came (i.e. Egypt) were not historically a godly people.
As such, God wanted His chosen people to be totally separate from the godless people that surrounded them and their customs. And, there is evidence that some of this tattooing may have been tied to their false gods and idols. However, this was in the Old Testament. What about today? Does God command His chosen people (Christians) in the New Testament to be separate from the godless world and its customs? The answer to this is "Yes." We are told over and over in the New Testament to be separate from the world.
For example, God tells us to keep ourselves unspotted from the world (James 1:27), to not be conformed to the world (Rom 12:2), and whoever is a friend of the world is the enemy of God (James 4:4).
(1 Jn 2:15-17) says, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (16) For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (17) And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
D. L. Moody said, "If I walk with the world, I cannot walk with God." As Christians, we live in this world, but we are not to be a part of it. This world is not our home. It is where we temporarily live until we arrive in our permanent home with the Lord in Heaven. Quoting Vance Havner, "If you are a Christian, you are not a citizen of this world trying to get to heaven; you are a citizen of heaven making your way through this world." As Christians, we are to stand out as different from this world. If Christians are divorcing, living together before marriage (fornication), looking at porn, drinking, smoking, suing each other, and yes even tattooing at the same rate as those of "the world," (and this IS pretty much the case) how can we stand out? And, if we don't stand out as different in our lifestyles from "the world," how are non-Christians going to see something in us that they need? Again quoting D. L. Moody, "Out of one hundred men, one will read the Bible, the other ninety-nine will read the Christian."
Ok, moving on from that, let's look at some other Biblical concepts to consider regarding tattoos.
1. The Bible says we are made "in the image of God" (Gen 1:26-27)(Gen 9:6)(Gen 5:1-2)(James 3:9). Man is God's crowning achievement. His greatest creation. In fact, as Christians, our body is the Temple of the Lord (1 Cor 3:16-17)(1 Cor 6:19-20)(2 Cor 6:16). These being the case, we should exercise caution in how we care for this body that God has given us. This includes things such as eating right, exercising, not smoking, not doing drugs, etc... Does tattooing fall into this category? I believe it certainly can. We should carefully consider whether we should mark up God's Temple. The image comes to me of the Israelites in the Old Testament painting things on God's actual Temple because they wanted to "decorate it" or weren't happy with the way it looked. Would God have approved? Just something to consider.
***Note: I also remember reading some time back that you never see a bumper sticker on a Maserati or Rolls Royce. You don't put bumper stickers on something that valuable. It cheapens it, and doesn't look right. WE are the Maserati and Rolls Royce of God's creation.
2. We are told to do ALL for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31)(Col 3:17,23). Is God glorified in getting tattoos? I know many believe that getting a tattoo might provide an opening to share the Gospel with non-believers that they might not otherwise get if they didn't have a tattoo. In fact, some even get "Christian" tattoos to increase this opportunity to share their faith. While this may indeed be the case, I would ask the question, "Did Jesus ever change His appearance to reach people?" I see no evidence of this in the Bible. Jesus' words and actions were what changed lives, not altering His appearance to "have an in." I would also ask this, "Is your PRIMARY motivation for getting a tattoo REALLY to increase your chances of sharing the Gospel, or are you just using that as an excuse because you want one?"
3. We should consider that we might be a "stumbling block" (verses above). (I discuss this in detail here.) Yes, perhaps getting a tattoo could open up a possibility to witness that one might not otherwise have. However, the opposite is also true. There are also non-Christians who believe that tattooing is wrong, and even evil. In this case, having a tattoo could hinder our ability to share the Gospel. Right, or wrong, some will judge Christians, or anyone with a tattoo in a negative light. This is especially true of the older generation.
My own father, while a Christian, was this way. Anyone who had a tattoo had no credibility in his eyes. When I worked for a homeless ministry for a period of time, the man who ran it was covered with tattoos. My dad thought he was a "freak," and wanted nothing to do with him. Of course, this was wrong, as we are not to judge any person by outward appearances (Jn 7:24)(1 Sam 16:7), but still, it hindered that man's testimony to my dad, and he is not alone in how those with tattoos are sometimes viewed. A good verse to keep in mind is found in (1 Th 5:22), "Abstain from all appearance of evil."
4. Keeping in mind my father, another thing to consider is, "how do our parents view tattoos?" Of course, the Bible says that a child should obey his/her parents (Eph 6:1)(Col 3:20)(Prov 6:20)(Prov 13:1)(Prov 23:22), and this would include not getting a tattoo if they are against it. However, what if the child is no longer a "child," but a young adult? Should they still get a tattoo if their parents are against it? I know this may be controversial, but as I discuss in detail here, I do not believe they should.
In my studies on this subject, I never found a place where the Bible places an age limit on obeying parents. On the contrary, there are MANY examples of elderly children honoring the wishes of, and listening to the counsel of their parents. This is a part of showing respect for your parents. Getting a tattoo against their wishes, or putting your own desires above theirs, is simply a form of disrespect. In my case, knowing my father's view on tattoos, it would have dishonored him to get a tattoo. It is also worth noting that the 5th Commandment (Ex 20:12) tells us to honor our father and mother, and comes with the promise that if we do, our "days may be long" (Also see: Eph 6:1-3, Prov 3:1-2). Part of honoring is obeying.
5. Tattooing tends to draw attention to oneself. The Bible tells us to do the opposite. We should always do our best to put attention on God, and not on ourselves. (This also includes such things as flashy jewelry, provocative clothing, etc...) (See: 1 Pet 3:3-4, 1 Tim 2:9-10)
6. Many people who get tattoos put them in a place where they cannot be seen. While this is probably wise on several fronts (i.e. some places may not hire you for a job if they see a tattoo), doesn't it say something about tattoos that many feel the need to hide them?
7. Finally, I would ask you to consider the cost of getting a tattoo. As I write this, I have read that it runs anywhere from $80-$100/hour to get a tattoo, with final prices sometimes going into the $1000's of dollars. As stewards of the money God has entrusted to us, is this the best way to use this money?
While I believe that the Biblical principles listed above should be enough to avoid having tattoos, there are really no clear verses in the Bible regarding whether tattoos are sinful or not. This being the case, it ultimately comes down to you and God, and what you feel is His will regarding this. May God give you wisdom.
***Note: A final "interesting" thought has occurred to me. One day, Christians who have died will receive new, resurrected, "glorified bodies" (1 Cor 15:35-49)(Phil 3:20-21)(2 Cor 5:1-7). Will these bodies that had tattoos on Earth have tattoos in Heaven too? Hmmmmm. I think not. Why? Because tattoos are "of this world," and nothing of "this world" will be in the New Heaven and New Earth. If useless things of this world will not be carried forward, why do them while on Earth?