What the Bible Says About Tattoos (Are They a Sin?)

Only one Bible verse speaks directly to permanent, symbolic markings on the skin. It’s Leviticus 19:28, and it’s one item in a list of ways God told Israel to distance themselves from the pagan practices of the people they lived among.

But do modern forms of inked body art fall into the same category? Is it a sin to get a tattoo?

While there are things to take into consideration, the short answer is no. It’s not a sin just to have a tattoo. And no one has the right to judge someone’s current spiritual condition from the artistic markings on their skin.

It’s true, there are well-meaning believers with several reasons to oppose tattoos. And they may say things out of fear or concern that feel like judgment.

But we know with confidence that only God can truly judge anyone’s heart.1

(That also means it’s best not to react with anger to well-intended yet misguided attempts to reach out or give advice. Everyone is on their own journey with God, and it’s not our job to judge them, either.)

However, there are legitimate reasons this subject is discussed in Christian circles. To explore them, we have to drill down to the real principle in question:

What would make a tattoo a sin? What makes anything a sin?

So if you have a tattoo (or are considering one) but you want to understand the concerns, let’s first look to Scripture. We’ll go over:

Let’s start with a quick clarification before we dive in.

What we mean when talking about tattoos

We’ll use the term “tattoo” in a general sense for this post. It will simply refer to the kind of permanent body art made by injecting ink into the skin. We aren’t discussing the possible designs, symbols, placements, or purposes for them.

(We’ll get into those later.)

Today, because of their permanence and prominence, tattoos are a common form of self-expression.

Just in the United States, about 30% of adults have at least one tattoo. And their popularity continues to grow.

Does the Bible talk about tattoos?

Travelers on camels before pyramids of Egypt as we discuss mosaic or ceremonial laws given to Israelite in the wilderness.

Photo from Unsplash

As mentioned above, one verse in Leviticus does specifically address permanent, symbolic markings. God tells Israel not to make cuts or marks on their skin, which back then was a common practice in ancestral worship.

“You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead, nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord(Leviticus 19:28, NASB).

Let’s unpack this.

The historical context here involves culture-building (or re-building) for the Israelites. They’d just become a free people again after 400 years of slavery in Egypt. That’s why the book of Leviticus has strict, very specific rules. These rules covered the areas of morality, civil/health, and spirituality/worship, and is sometimes referred to as Old Testament law or Mosaic law.

After all, these Israelites were having to learn what we’d now consider basic social skills. They’d forgotten a lot of their culture after generations of enslavement. So God had Moses teach them how to live in harmony together on their own, away from their sub-par living conditions in Egypt.

This basic guidance was just what they needed to grow from a crude, stubborn, superstitious people to a mature, practical, community-oriented, God-loving society.

(Similar to how we have to give ultra-specific commands to children, like “don’t touch the stove” or “don’t play with knives.” They need this kind of guidance until they become able to understand generalities and principles.)

Because the Israelites were emerging from 20 generations in Egypt, these commands helped them separate themselves from the nation and culture that oppressed them. In fact, verses 26-31 in Leviticus 19 all have to do with Israel distancing themselves from the pagan practices they’d lived among for so long.

And it’s not hard to see why! Some of these things involved intentional bodily harm (1 Kings 18:28) in order to appease pagan spirits. They believed they had to cause themselves pain to demonstrate their devotion.

Some customs even involved human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31) or ritual prostitution (Amos 2:7).

But what was verse 28 talking about? It mentions “tattoo marks” right after “cuts in your body for the dead.”

This verse isn’t saying that all marks on the body are sinful. But it does call out the act of emblazoning pagan symbols on the body as part of a ritual honoring “the dead.” Which was a cultural norm in Egypt at the time.

But does this Bible verse specifically forbid any kind of tattoo or body art or call it an act of sin?

No. But it’s important to know how similar things were addressed in the Bible, and what meanings or associations they might have carried at the time.

This tells us that the meaning behind what we do matters.

Common concerns associated with tattoos (as well as piercings and other forms of body art)

While the Bible may not outright forbid the injection of ink into the skin (provided it’s not part of a pagan ritual), there are important things to consider.

A common perspective on body art throughout all of Christianity is that God-followers should be thoughtful and cautious when making decisions about our bodies. This is usually why the following are expressed as concerns:

Permanent alteration of the body

Woman in red praying for God's guidance, as we learn that we are dwelling places for the Holy Spirit.

Photo from Unsplash

Because tattoos involve changing your skin’s appearance in a permanent way, that alone can cause hesitance. Christians often refer to the belief that our bodies are the pinnacle of God’s creation and we are made in the image of God.

Tattoos are sometimes seen as changing or modifying God’s creation, or an attempt to improve upon it (even if that is not the intention of the person considering a tattoo). The idea meant to come across is that we’re beautiful as we are, so why would we need artwork on our skin?

Alongside this idea, you may have heard this passage of Scripture:

“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” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, NKJV).

We are indeed dwelling places for the Holy Spirit, and we have been “bought at a price” because Jesus Christ died for each one of us. Bearing those things in mind, some Christians are cautious about doing anything to our bodies that could possibly take away from their sacredness.

But this verse is actually written in the context of sexual immorality. The apostle Paul is pointing out that a sin of that type is a “sin against his own body” (verse 18).

So if this verse is being used as a definitive point against tattooing, then this verse is being misused.

However, the underlying principle here is still relevant. We should indeed treat our bodies as sacred gifts from God, so anything we do that affects our bodies should be approached carefully.

Even aside from religious concerns, however, a tattoo’s permanence already makes it a big decision. It requires much thought and preparation because they’re not made to be removed.

(Yes, removal can be done. But it’s expensive and inconvenient, and can be painful.)

Many, many people throughout the years end up removing their tattoos. Most often it’s because they didn’t put proper thought into them when they got them.

Potential negative connotations

Tattoo of word - fear on a person's right hand as we discuss potential negative connotations with tattoos.

Photo from Unsplash

Because tattoos are permanent and typically intended to be noticed, Christians should take great care in considering the associations and meanings that might go along with the designs they choose.

Much of the time, the biggest concerns with tattoos don’t even have to do with the act of getting one or having one. It’s about what ideas are often associated with tattoos.

For example, it’s common for tattoos to represent or symbolize:

  • Cultural ideals
  • Religious ideals
  • Philosophies or schools of thought
  • Pagan/occult association
  • Military allegiance
  • Political standing
  • Other written languages
  • Gang membership
  • Ancestry

Sometimes people choose tattoos as a permanent testament to their religious beliefs, their culture or heritage, or their family. But especially in Christian circles, there’s often concern about decorating oneself with imagery that might have dark pagan roots or that represents divisive or dangerous ideals.

Can be a form of “adornment”

Jewelries as we learn that Bible calls us not to draw attention to our adornments, instead on value that comes from within.

Photo from Unsplash

The Bible talks about not having your beauty come from your adornment. Tattoos, clothing, jewelry, and other external items can also represent social status and wealth. And the concern is about drawing more attention to what’s on our bodies instead of the value that comes from within.

That being said, adornment in and of itself isn’t necessarily wrong. But when decorating or adorning ourselves uses more of our money, time, and effort than we put into who we are as a person, therein lies the issue.

“Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel—rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3-4, NKJV, emphasis added).

Pain and/or health risks

The belief that our bodies are temples of God naturally leads to a belief that they should be well maintained and treated with care. Getting a tattoo is a process that is somewhat invasive and painful, and our bodies need to heal afterward.

On top of that, it’s important to be safe. Anyone looking to get a tattoo should be aware that there are risks: skin infections, allergic reactions, or issues with ingredients in some inks.

And because of the potential risks associated with the tattooing process, many medical establishments still don’t allow a person to donate blood if their tattoo is under a year old.

Other risks worth a mention

Tattoo artist engraving tattoos on a person as we consider the pain and health risks involved in getting a tattoo.

Photo from Unsplash

Aside from any health or morality concerns, there are other risks associated with getting a tattoo that deserves some thought.

For one, even if you have your tattoo design carefully planned out, you are still at the mercy of the tattoo artist to recreate that design to your liking. It’s not unheard of for people to seek laser removal of their tattoos because of a botched design. Or because once the ink was on the skin, the artwork didn’t quite look like the person hoped it would.

Another thing to remember is that some professions or workplaces have guidelines about visible tattoos. Especially for companies that require uniforms or that uphold a general appearance policy, the placement and/or content of a tattoo can be a concern.

And let’s be realistic. Even though workplaces are not supposed to discriminate against someone because of a tattoo, it still happens. Prominent body art does affect how others perceive you, whether it should or not. So even if that’s unfair (and illegal), it’s still a risk.

But what would make a tattoo a sin?

A tattoo could be sinful if it comes between you and God, or if it affects your ability to live as a follower of Christ. (And that’s pretty much what would make anything sinful.)

But let’s look in the Bible for more details on how sin is defined.

1 John 3:4 tells us that sin is “lawlessness” or rebelliousness against God (Deuteronomy 9:7).

Though ultimately, when it goes into depth, Scripture tells the story of sin as exalting self over God (Isaiah 14:12-15). And God’s law is based on love—so sin is like the opposite of love.

At its core, sin has to do with motive and allegiance. Why are we doing this act, and whom do we support or uplift by doing it?

The Bible also describes sin as separation from God (Isaiah 59:2). This could be anything that degrades your relationship with Him or that conflicts with the loving ways we represent our belief in Him.

Essentially, sin can be anything that becomes an “idol” to us. And if we treat something like it’s worth more adoration and attention than our Creator, it only makes sense that it’d cause a relational rift.

If something gets in the way of loving God and keeping His commandments, it’s sin.

So now it’s time to do some soul-searching.

A tattoo itself isn’t sin. But depending on the motives, meaning, and intention behind it, it could be. Just like many things could be.

While you think this over, here are some other helpful things to consider.

Biblical principles to guide your decision

Person praying with folded hands on a Bible, as we prayerfully consider Biblical principles to guide our decision on tattoos.

Photo from Unsplash

Getting a permanent tattoo is not a decision to be made hastily. It requires much thought, foresight, and prayerful contemplation.

And the Bible can help. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when considering a tattoo:

  • Why do I want to get this tattoo?
  • Can I get this tattoo with a clear conscience?
  • What meaning does it have to me?
  • What meaning might it communicate to others?
  • Does it contradict the biblical principles I stand for?

While you ponder these answers, the Bible can help. Even in situations where lines aren’t clearly drawn, Scripture still offers wisdom that can guide our decision-making.

“All things are permitted, but not all things are of benefit. All things are permitted, but not all things build people up” (1 Corinthians 10:23, NASB).

“So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31, ESV).

“Therefore brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship” (Romans 12:1, CSB).

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, ESV).

“…Humans do not see what the Lord sees, for humans see what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, CSB).

So whether you already have a tattoo or decide to get one, remember—no one else can or should judge your relationship with God using that as the criteria.

Ultimately, your decision about tattoos is between you and God. The best advice you can get is to involve Him in your decision.

But what if we’ve already made a decision, and now it feels like a mistake? How should we handle that?

What if I have a tattoo…and I regret it? Should I get it removed?

As we’ve established, your heart is what ultimately matters to God. But it’s understandable to be concerned about something permanent and visible, like a tattoo, if you feel it misrepresents your current beliefs or priorities.

But just like the process of getting a tattoo, removal is also a personal decision. And one you can certainly bring to God for guidance.

And whatever you do, make sure it’s because you’re “fully convinced in your own mind” (Romans 14:5, ESV), and not simply doing something as a response to outside pressure.

So ask yourself: Do you not feel right about keeping your tattoo? Do you find it to be a hindrance to your walk with God? Do you feel that it misrepresents your values?

Tattoo removal is certainly possible, and you’re likely to find a place nearby that offers that service.

But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. And it may not even be the only option.

For one, if your tattoo can be easily covered by clothing, you can prioritize your wardrobe accordingly. (If nothing else, this can be a temporary solution while you prayerfully decide what to do.)

Another option would depend on where you stand with tattoos in general at this point. But you could hire a tattoo artist to change your current tattoo into something else completely.

This might be an appealing option if your tattoo is large or in a difficult spot for removal. It could take less time and money to add more to the design than to book multiple laser removal sessions.

And while you contemplate your options, remember that every one of us carries scars from our past. While they may not all be as visible as a tattoo, the fact remains that they don’t have to define us. Sometimes a mark left on us by the past is just a part of our story.

Can I attend an Adventist Church if I have a tattoo?

Of course! There certainly aren’t any rules or beliefs against it. And a core principle of gathering as a faith community is that we come as we are, submitting ourselves before God in worship.

Personal opinions among church members may vary about tattoos, piercings, fashion, and other various forms of self-expression. But that’s irrelevant when it comes to who’s welcome at church. Your local Adventist congregation will be happy to meet you!

Tattoos can represent what you enjoy, value, prioritize, promote, etc., but the whole “you,” as a child of God, is so much more than that. And ultimately, His opinion is what truly matters.

Want to learn more about how God sees us, and how He can guide us through our daily lives?

  1. James 4:12; Matthew 7:1-5; John 7:24 []

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