Is It a Sin to Have a Tattoo?
While there is much to take into consideration, the short answer is no. It is not a sin just to have a tattoo. And no human being 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 out there who have their own reasons for opposing tattoos. And they may say things out of fear or concern that feel like judgment.
But we know with confidence that God is the only one who can truly judge anyone’s heart (James 4:12; Matthew 7:1-5; John 7:24).
(That also means that it’s best not to react with anger to well-intended yet misguided attempts to reach out or give advice. Every human being is on their own journey with God, and it’s not our job to judge them, either.)
However, there are legitimate reasons this question is asked within Christian circles.
To properly explore these reasons, we need to dig down to the basic principle in question:
What is it that would cause a tattoo to be considered a sin?
What makes anything a sin?
So, if you have a tattoo (or are thinking about getting one), but you want to understand some of the concerns, let’s look at what the Bible actually says. We’ll dig into the following areas:
- What is meant by “tattoo”?
- References to tattoos in the Bible
- Common concerns associated with tattoos
- What would make a tattoo a sin?
- Biblical principles to guide your decisions
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—not necessarily 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?
There is one Bible verse that specifically mentions tattoos, or symbolic markings on the body.
“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 context of Leviticus is rooted in culture-building for the Israelites, who had recently become a free people after 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Therefore, the book of Leviticus has many strict, very specific rules (often referred to as the mosaic law or ceremonial law).
After all, these Israelites were having to learn basic societal skills they’d forgotten after generations of enslavement. So God had Moses teach them how to live in harmony together on their own, away from their subpar living conditions in Egypt.
This basic-level guidance was just what they needed to grow from a primitive, stubborn, superstitious people to a mature, practical, community-oriented, and 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 coming out of centuries of living in Egypt, they were given many of these commands to separate themselves from the nation and culture that had 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 in order to appease pagan spirits or to demonstrate devotion in ancestor worship. Some customs even involved varying levels of human sacrifice.
But what was verse 28 talking about? It mentions “tattoo marks” (or “writing marks” in older translations) 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 other important things to consider.
One common perspective on body art throughout all of Christianity is that God-followers should be thoughtful and cautious when making decisions regarding our bodies. This is usually why the following are expressed as concerns:
Permanent alteration of the body
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).
Bearing in mind that we are dwelling places for the Holy Spirit, some Christians are cautious about doing anything to our bodies that could possibly take away from its 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.
Though even aside from religious concerns, a tattoo’s permanence already makes it a big decision. It requires much thought and preparation because they’re not made to be removed.
(Well, removal can be done, but it is 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
Because tattoos are permanent and typically intended to be noticed, Christians should take great care in considering what kind of associations and meanings correspond with the images in their art.
A lot of the time, the biggest concerns with tattoos don’t even have to do with the act of getting it or having one, but 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
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 is always 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”
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 with 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 at least 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 of skin infections, allergic reactions, or issues with ingredients in some inks.
And because of the potential risks associated with the tattooing process, many establishments still do not allow a person to donate blood if their tattoo is under a year old.
Other risks worth a mention
Aside from any health or morality concerns, there are other risks associated with getting a tattoo that deserve 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 botched design or simply because once the ink was on the skin, the artwork appeared differently.
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 to discriminate against someone because of a tattoo, it still happens. Something like prominent body art does affect how others perceive you, whether it should or not. This is still a risk.
But what would make a tattoo a sin?
Let’s look at how the Bible defines sin.
1 John 3:4 tells us that sin is “lawlessness” or rebellion against God (Deuteronomy 9:7).
Though ultimately, when it goes into depth, Scripture tells the story of sin as one of exalting self over God (Isaiah 14:12-15).
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 anytime we treat something like it’s worth more adoration and attention than our Creator, that inevitably causes 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
Getting a permanent tattoo is not a decision to be made hastily. It requires much thought, foresight, and prayerful contemplation.
Here are some helpful questions to ask 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 broadcast 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).
And whether you already have a tattoo or decide to get one, remember that no one else can or should judge your relationship with God using that as the criteria.
Ultimately, your decision regarding tattoos is between you and God. The best advice you can get is to involve Him in your decision.
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