Do Tattoos Matter?

“Is God against tattoos/ body modification?” The question came to me simply enough last year when one of my students came in and shared an experience they had at another church. The youth pastor got up and started railing against tats… This particular teenager felt a little uneasy because they had several family members with tats. So I took some time and we explored what the Bible really does say about tats and body modification.

There are many reasons to not get a tattoo, but the bible doesn’t provide us with God’s explicit thoughts on the subject (It’s not the 11th commandment). The word tattoo is mentioned one time in the whole Bible. In the context it means “to write on yourself.” So if you did that in middle school with a pen then I’m pretty sure you’ve already broken this commandment … but let’s take a serious look at the verse about “tattoos” and use this as an exercise in understanding how to read the Bible in context.

“You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:26-28 ESV)

It is important to understand that the book of Leviticus was written to the nation of Israel and was written with the priests especially in mind. The gist of the whole book is to not look like the pagan cultures around. It is for a specific group of people that lived at a specific time in history. We can learn a lot from it, but we do so at a distance. We are not traveling through the desert about the enter the promised land that is full of pagan people who do these things.

The command prohibits cutting your body for the dead and marking yourself like the people around them were doing. The idea is that when someone died, evil spirits would be around, so you would disfigure yourself so as not to be recognized by the evil spirit. The tattoo stuff implies that you are getting inked with the name of a false god or demon… all of these commands are in the context of how people worship idols and fake gods…. So if you were planning on getting a lotus flower tat to honor the Hindu god Shiva… then I’d say God isn’t pleased with your tat (and that’s really just common sense… based on the first and second commandments). In the book of Revelation we see something similar with the Mark of the Beast (Revelation 13:16-17), to get THAT tat you are permanently marking your body saying that, “I belong to Satan.” So God’s definitely against that… but in those cases I think your bigger problem is your heart that that is living in rebellion to God, not the ink in your skin.

This command in Leviticus doesn’t forbid EVERY kind of cutting and tattoo, only those that are in service to false gods. Because this verse alone doesn’t forbid all tattoos/ body modification, etc. some people appeal to the New Testament where the Apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth that their bodies are the “Temple of the Living God” (1 Cor. 3:17, 1 Cor. 6:19, 2 Cor. 6:16). The logic follows that if your body is the temple of God, then you shouldn’t mark it up with tattoos (or any body-modification for that matter). The problem is that none of those passages actually say anything like that. In context they say, “God doesn’t need a temple like pagan God’s because you’re the temple.” “Don’t sleep around because if effects you more than you think.” And “Don’t worship false idols, it’s absurd to put an idol in the temple to the one true God.” … Nothing about body modification/ tattoo’s, stitches, heart surgery, stints, pacemakers, braces, fillings, etc…. “Your body is a temple” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misquoted passages of scripture. Seldom do I ever hear it quoted in context, most often it is used to beat someone up.

I actually have it on good authority that God is pro body modification. Every little Jewish boy around 8 days old got a permanent cut called circumcision. The difference was that this cut (body modification) was at the hands of someone else and it was to honor God (not an idol). The first big argument in the church was actually whether or not the church was supposed to force new converts to get this cut. In fact some people were going around saying, “you’re not a real Christian unless you have this painful body modifying cut done.” Check it out for yourself in Acts 15.

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
(Acts 15:1-5 ESV)

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”(Acts 15:19-21 ESV)

So do you see what is going on here? Someone is going around saying that unless you get the permanent mark on your body, you cannot be saved! (Sounds like a twisted parallel to the message my student heard, “you can’t have a tat and be saved”).  Indeed somebody else stands up and points back to the law of Moses (the law of Moses included the first 5 books of the Old Testament, including the book of Leviticus). The council makes a distinction here and says rather than forcing them to keep all of our customs and laws (which were peculiar to them as a nation), we are going to separate the national law from the moral law… The only thing we ask of someone who converts to Christianity is that they act morally.

This is very important by the way because someone one day is going to take something obscure out of the Old Testament Jewish rituals (which I think all foreshadow Jesus and are worth understanding) and say, “Why do you eat shellfish when they are unclean, or do you wear clothes made out of two types of fabric, etc when the bible says you shouldn’t.” The answer is easy and simple… because I’m not a Jew. God doesn’t require us to do that. Acts 15 tells the story.

I think in the same freedom afforded you to eat bacon affords you the freedom to get a tattoo provided you don’t get one as an act of worship to a false god or idol. I think you would need to ask yourself the question, “Does this honor God?”

For the record. I don’t have tats. I don’t plan on getting any. I don’t want my kids to have them (until they are out on their own and they can make their own decisions)… but all for extra biblical reasons and as a point of personal preference.  Read carefully, I have not made a case for why you should get a tattoo, only that what you have on your skin does not indicate what has or has not happened in your heart. The real body modification that needs to take place for all of us is in the heart (Deut. 30:6, Romans 2:29).