Tattoos – what does the Bible really say?
Written by Trevor Huthnance
It seems over the past decade or so, tattoos have burst from a sub-culture of our society into popular culture. TV shows based on the tattoo industry are springing up on major networks; social media pages for tattoo culture are numbering in the millions of followers, and you would be hard pressed to take a walk on the street and not see several people sporting leg tattoos or arm sleeves. Tattoos have become a mainstream part of society.
Does the bible have anything to say about tattoos and is it relevant for us today?
Questions often asked about this subject are: Is there a relationship between the ritual tattoos of ancient times and the "body art" of today? What biblical principles apply in deciding whether to get a tattoo or not?
Tattooing has been around for centuries and in recent years, this practice has enjoyed a popular resurgence, especially among young people. The reasons vary. Some get tattoos to show independence and rejection of parental values. Others get them because of peer pressure or because they believe they are stylish -- a type of body adornment and beautification. Some tattoos are outlandish in appearance and are for the specific purpose of drawing attention.
As for God's instruction regarding tattoos, the Bible does not specifically address the modern practice of tattooing as body adornment. While Leviticus 19:28 says, "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord", most scholars believe these practices were related to mourning for the dead.
Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary's article on tattoos says, "Any kind of self-laceration or marking of the body was prohibited among the Hebrew people. Such cuttings were associated with pagan cults that tattooed their followers while they mourned the dead (1986).”
Apparently, these people cut themselves and disfigured their bodies as a way of appeasing the anger of their gods and hoping to find some help for the deceased. God did not want His people getting involved in these pagan rituals because these practices led people away from Him. While death is always a sad time, God's people are not to "sorrow as others who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
We should also be aware that there are many health risks in modern day tattooing, including the risk of contracting Hepatitis B and re-actions to certain dyes.
For people who get tattoos when they are young, many later regret their decision. One survey in 2015 shows that 23% (nearly one in four people) regret having their body tattooed (http://shoulditattoo.com/2016/09/03/tattoo-facts-statistics/). Some eventually undergo operations to have their tattoos removed, but these procedures are not always successful. Scarring and skin discolorations commonly remain.
While most of the current tattooing has no association with religious practices, and it is unlikely that people today get tattoos to mourn the dead, there are other biblical principles that indicate that getting a tattoo is not appropriate for Christians.
Several scriptures instruct Christians to take special care of their bodies. For example, 1 Corinthians 3:17 says, "If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are." Also, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 adds “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".
There is always the thought that as God has given us a wonderful body with the potential to be His children forever, why would we use our bodies for graffiti?
Finally, we should bear in mind that God wants Christians to come out of and be separate from the world around us (2 Corinthians 6:14-17; Revelation 18:4). We are to reflect God's values and His thinking, not the world’s thinking. Because of these reasons, we strongly advise that people do not get tattoos.
If a person already has a tattoo before becoming a Christian, he or she does not need to have it removed. A person with a tattoo and who is genuinely seeking to love God and keep His commandments is following a path of life that is pleasing to God. God looks on the heart of the individual – not the physical tattoo.
Is it acceptable to believe we are free to worship God as we wish, to refashion God in our own image? Or has God revealed an approach to life that He expects us to follow? Does it make any difference in the relationship we are supposed to have with Him? In this lesson we examine the answers to these questions and more from the Scriptures.
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About the Author
Trevor Huthnance is a United Church of God Elder and serves as the Personal Correspondent for the Church – answering questions from our readers and viewers on the Bible and Christian living.