“You will not make cuttings in your flesh, for the dead, nor print marks on you” (Leviticus 19:28). Is this God’s final word on tattoos? What is the Lord talking about here? In this article we will consider the three parts of God’s law in Leviticus 19:28 as it refers to tattoos: “cuttings in your flesh;” “for the dead;” and “print marks” to try and establish a biblical stance for Christians today.
Tattoos: Cuttings in Your Flesh
The worship of Baal has been dated to at least before the Exodus, making it contemporary with the time in which Moses was given the law. This Canaanite religion involved many rituals including self-mutilation. One ancient verse describes ritual masochism: “She cuts cheek and chin/She lacerates Her forearms/She plows lake a garden Her chest/Like a vale She lacerates the back.”
God did not want His people to hurt themselves gratuitously. Self-mutilation is dangerous and can lead to significant health problems. His people did not enjoy the advantages of 21st-century society: hospitals, doctors, and antibiotics. If self-mutilation went wrong, one could die a painful death or at least create ugly scars, all to please the pagan gods.
Tattoos: Physical and Mental Pain
People sometimes self-injure themselves for the same reasons they get tattoos: the pain is part of how they cope with difficulty or feel a sense of power for a short period of time. Trying to run one’s life without God is like that first rebellion in the Garden, but while “many are the plans in the mind of a man, [...] it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). He wants us to turn to Him in times of trial and say, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul” (Psalm 94:19).
When one’s body is marked by trials, God uses those scars to point out His Sovereign touch — His ultimate healing. Gifted experts have turned many scars into beautiful works of art, but Christians have to ask themselves whether those tattoos activate a sense of inner strength or remind them of God’s powerful grip on them during times of darkness and pain.
Tattoos: Legacy of Light or Darkness
Cutting and even some methods of tattooing are associated with punishment throughout the ages in many cultures, whether self-inflicted or as a means of torture by others. Inflicting pain — physical or emotional — on one’s self or on someone else is an outpouring of hatred and an exercise in control. Is the image or message a reminder of past guilt, a way of inflicting emotional distress every time one sees it?
Paul writes “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31). Is obtaining a tattoo about self-punishment? Is the purpose to take control of one’s punishment and salvation? In either case, getting a tattoo is an act of unbelief.
Tattoos borne out of self-hatred are legacies of darkness rather than light. The Father wants His children to bear fruit, and a fruitful life is repentant. A fruitful heart looks to Him rather than reliving one’s sorrow, guilt, and shame over and over in the form of a visual reminder and a worldly identifier. “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true) and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Self-harm says “Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t enough. I am responsible for my own salvation.”
Tattoos: For the Dead
A popular reason to get a tattoo is in order to honor a loved one who has died. God directed His people to disassociate themselves from Canaanite traditions such as slashing their bodies as a way to “mourn their dead.” What about designing beautiful markings in honor of loved ones who have passed on?
In Luke 9:60, Jesus said to “leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Paul wrote, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Christians grieve for their dead, but they do not worship them.
Not only do they have hope of reuniting with lost loved ones who believed in Christ for salvation, but they have been commanded to have no other Gods; to worship no idols. Talking to a loved one, keeping a shrine to the deceased, making a shrine of one’s body by way of a tattoo: this is idolatry.
David was criticized for breaking his fast after his baby son died, but David replied, “Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?” (2 Samuel 12:23).
“The Scriptures never ask Christians to deny the feeling of grief — it is a right and holy sadness.” Yet, some people think too much about those who are gone; they look backward and fail to move forward. If a Christian is considering getting a tattoo as a way of honoring one who has died, of glorifying that person posthumously and identifying with grief more than with Christ, he or she might want to think twice. If the mark is a reminder and testimony of the resurrection and security believers have in Jesus our Redeemer, that’s different.
Tattoos: Print Marks
The Hebrew for “imprint” is “qaaqa” which also means “tattoo” or “incision.” “In the Near East, tattoos were used to mark slaves.” If one wore a brand “on his hand or forehead,” he or she was quickly identified as someone’s property.
Even seemingly innocuous marks represent worship. Consider the financial cost, the time commitment, and the pain one endures, not to mention the permanence of a tattoo: this is no minor undertaking. Every time someone selects or designs a tattoo then spends an hour or more getting “inked,” he or she is connecting strongly to the subject in question and might be enslaved to a sin represented by that image.
Look around, and one might see body art idolizing celebrities, death, or even a religion. Many people wear a semicolon tattoo indicating they stand with survivors of suicide and people who suffer from mental health concerns. “No matter the type of brokenness — physical or mental — Christian identity is found not in a diagnosis, but instead in our position as redeemed children of God" (Romans 8:16–17).
Any publicly visible image makes that image and associated ideas famous. It’s important and biblical to support one another, but that support always begins in Christ; we have nothing to give without Him. Even the cross etched permanently into one’s chest can be an idol if one regards and describes it as a protective device, believing the cross is protective rather than Christ, imagining that salvation protects one from disease and muggers rather than protecting one for eternity with Jesus.
A believer has the opportunity to use a tattoo to declare Christ’s name, but Christians without tattoos are identifiable without ink on their skin. They are known by their gentleness (Philippians 4:5) and by the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23). Their mark is the Holy Spirit. Obtaining a tattoo can spark gospel-centered conversation and act as a missional ice-breaker but is not as compelling as a heart changed by Jesus.
Tattoos: Beauty on the Body
Early in the history of Christianity as it spread from Rome into the rest of the world, “tattooing was severely frowned upon.” In fact, “Pope Hadrian banned tattooing, stating that God made man’s body in his image and to deface it in any way was to deface God’s gift.” In defense of tattoos, we now understand that the image of God is a spiritual one conveyed as “salt and light.” (Matthew 5:13-16) Marking one’s body is not necessarily vandalism. Wise Christians weigh their motives.
A good tattoo is a work of art, no different from a beautiful painting. Like an image hung on one’s living room wall, body art sends a message about personal values. Is Christ number one? “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
God does not expect His children to be branded as slaves, but there is no express warning against obtaining a tattoo that identifies one as a lover of Christ. There is nothing wrong with being an art lover. Seek out the direction of the Holy Spirit in prayer, by reading the Word, and by asking wise friends. Once that mark has been made it cannot be removed easily.
What Does This Mean? And Can Christians Get Tattoos?
For those whose bodies already bear the marks of a pre-Christian past, take comfort: they are still part of a personal testimony. In conversation with others who sport tattoos, they provide a natural avenue to discussing the gospel and demonstrating that the important change has taken place inwardly, where Christ has exquisitely and tenderly marked the inner person.
For more see: 7 Questions You Should Ask before Getting a Tattoo
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.