The Bible on Tattoos

Are Tattoos sinful? Leviticus 19:28 says (NLT), “Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the LORD.” Notice it says “for the dead”, which means this direction was aimed at the forbiddance of pagan ancestral worship and mourning practices. Deuteronomy 14:1 says, “Since you are the people of the LORD your God, never cut yourselves or shave the hair above your foreheads in mourning for the dead.” This confirms that self-mutilation like cutting was a practice associated with mourning that God was against. The ancient Israelites would express mourning in a few different ways, weeping and crying loudly (Psalm 6:6, Genesis 50:10; Ruth 1:9), bowing the head (Lamentations 2:10), and fasting (2 Samuel 3:35), sprinkling ashes, dust, or dirt upon themselves (2 Samuel 1:2; Joshua 7:6), tear their clothing (Genesis 37:29; 2 Chronicles 34:27), removed jewelry (Exodus 33:4), walked barefoot (2 Samuel 15:30), and possibly wear a coarse, goat-hair garment called sackcloth/burlap (Genesis 37:34; Jonah 3:6-8). These mourning actions were allowed, but cutting, shaving, and tattooing were not allowed.

Also notice, that shaving is something that was allowed in general for cleaning after a disease like leprosy (Lev 13:33, Lev 14:8-9), at the end of a Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:9 & 18), or the dedication of the Levites to the priesthood (Num 8:5-7). However, it is only prohibited when it comes to mourning or worship of the dead. It seems that based on God’s restrictions on shaving as they relate to cutting and tattooing, the issue was more about mourning the dead, rather than doing these actions in general. Cutting one’s flesh is likely frowned upon in general since one is defiling God’s image which is our bodies (Gen 1:26). Also, it would conflict with the ritual purity laws because those laws limit contact with certain bodily fluids, so exposing internal body fluids on purpose would be frowned upon. Furthermore, the new testament believers are the new temple of God because his spirit resides in them (1 Cor 3:16-17, 1 Cor 6:19-20) so we shouldn’t desecrate our temple.

That leaves us with tattoos, is it defilement of God’s temple or is it fine as long there is no mourning or ancestral worship associated with it? If someone isn’t doing in association with a direct violation of this scripture like ancestral worship, idolatry, some kind of occult or gang activity, witchcraft, or something else sinful, then it may be fine. People get tattoos of stupid random stuff all the time, some Christians even have bible themed tattoos, so it doesn’t have to be for the dead or anything like that. In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul says that some things are lawful but not expedient, meaning they may be technically allowed but we should examine our motives and make sure it doesn’t detract from God’s calling our lives as ambassadors for Christ. Getting a tattoo is pretty permanent, unlike a face painting. Technically the translation of kethobeth (כְּתֹבֶת) is “mark or imprint” so body painting and such could fit into this category but it would only be sinful if it is for the dead (like in celebration of a holiday that worships the dead). Otherwise, body paint should be fine since it can be washed off. Tattoos on the other hand are permanent, and require laser treatment to remove. Does a new Christian have to remove their tattoos before they can be fully saved? I don’t believe it is absolutely necessary since laser removal is expensive and will leave scarring. If anything the tattoos can function as a testimony of where they come from or they can even have their tattoos covered with Christ-based modifications.

I don’t think Christians should be reckless in getting tattoos but we all have sin nature and people make mistakes, the main issue is that the person will be wearing this mistake for the rest of their life. In the end, we can take Paul’s advice on following one’s conscience on things that are not explicitly clear in the Bible. Paul says to do this on issues of his day like vegetarianism, holidays, and idol meats in Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians ch. 8-10. Let’s not judge others too harshly that have done it but at the same time, I think it is worth a second thought to make sure that what you are doing is Christlike and will glorify Christ in some way. Remember you were bought with a price so glorify God in your spirit would and body (1 Cor 6:20).