Beckett: Are Tattoos Sinful?

Misguided Christians use Leviticus 19:28 as an absolute to not get tattoos, which reads: “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead or make any tattoo marks on yourselves…” As a lot of people do when they want to use Scripture to prove their preconceived beliefs, they’re ignoring the context. What they’re doing is called proof texting, which is pulling a verse out of the Bible that seemingly supports your belief. When you examine the context, however, we learn otherwise. Let’s read the context of this verse in Leviticus 19:26-31:

“You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes. You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD. Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity. You shall keep My Sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary: I am the LORD. Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD.”

Whenever we read and interpret Scripture, it is necessary to understand who God is talking to as well as what the historical context is. Here, God is talking to His people Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The entire book of Leviticus is God laying down His Law before Israel so they may not become like the pagan nations around them. At this point in Leviticus, God is telling the Israelites to refrain from the religious practises of the surrounding nations. These practices included eating raw meat, fortune telling, certain hair cuts that cultic priests did, cutting or marking their bodies for dead relatives, cultic prostitution, and getting involved with psychics. These practises would lead God’s people away from Him and toward false gods. When we read “tattoo marks,” it is vital to understand the historical context of this verse is not talking about generically decorating the body but marking oneself as part of cultic worship. Let’s read the following commentary on this passage:

The practice of making deep gashes on the face and arms and legs, in time of bereavement, was universal among the heathen, and it was deemed a becoming mark of respect for the dead, as well as a sort of propitiatory offering to the deities who presided over death and the grave. The Jews learned this custom in Egypt, and though weaned from it, relapsed in a later and degenerate age into this old superstition (Is. 15:2; Je. 16:6; 41:5). “Nor print any marks upon you” (v: 28)—by tattooing, imprinting figures of flowers, leaves, stars, and other fanciful devices on various parts of their person. The impression was made sometimes by means of a hot iron, sometimes by ink or paint, as is done by the Arab females of the present day and the different castes of the Hindus. It is probable that a strong propensity to adopt such marks in honor of some idol gave occasion to the prohibition in this verse; and they were wisely forbidden.

Jamieson, R., Fausset, A.R., & Brown, D., (1997). A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. On spine: Critical and Explanatory Commentary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Another commentary reads:

The reference here is to the practice of making deep gashes in the skin while mourning the death of a relative. This was done to provide life blood for the spirit of the dead person rather than to express sorrow. On account of the dead: as indicated above, this describes the purpose of all the actions in verse 27 as well as verse 28.

Péter-Contesse, R., & Ellington (1992). A Handbook on Leviticus. UBS Handbooks; Helps for Translating (pg. 296). New York: United Bible Societies.

It is clear, then, that these “tattoo marks” were related to false religious practises in sacrifice to their false gods. So, is it sinful for Christians to get a tattoo? Well, what’s the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods.” Martin Luther explains this commandment as fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. By getting a tattoo, are you offering your blood to the spirit of a dead person in order to prolong their life? Are you doing it as an offering for some other deity? If not, then it’s not sinful. The other cultic practises listed in the context were also sinful because they broke the first commandment. “Eating bloody meat” is eating raw meat, not a rare steak. Not only is it unhealthy, but they also ate them in sacrifice to their false gods. Fortune telling is a failure to fear and trust in God. The haircuts they practised were in sacrifice to their false gods as were the cuts and marks they made on their bodies. Prostitution is not only unwarranted fornication, but they also used prostitution in their cultic rituals for their false gods. And consulting psychics is a failure to fear and trust in God as well.

Before you get a tattoo, always ask yourself why you’re getting it. By getting it, are you failing to love, trust, and fear God? If so, you probably shouldn’t get it. If not, then it’s not sinful. I have two tattoos myself. On my right arm I have a bold-printed cross to remind me that my sinful flesh has been nailed to the cross because I have a tendency to forget my sins are forgiven. On my left arm I have עִמָּ֫נוּאֵ֫ל (Immanuel), which is Hebrew for, “God with us.” I got it because I always forget that God—that Jesus—is always with me. These tattoos are a reminder for me to love, trust, and fear God, and it works.

Paul wrote, I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Romans 14:14). Despite the evidence pointing to the contrary, you may think getting a tattoo is sinful, but that doesn’t mean it is. To you, and to your conscience alone, it is sinful. What Paul is saying is that if someone is convinced a certain behaviour or act is a sin—even if his assessment is wrong—it is only sinful to him and because of this, he should never do the act since it violates his conscience. This is a unique case, however. We cannot use Paul’s words above for ostensibly identified sins such as lying, theft, premarital sex, homosexuality, murder, and so on. It is, however, unique in being applied to tattoos because it’s adiaphora (things Scripture neither forbids nor commands). So, if you’re convinced tattoos are sinful despite the above evidence, then just don’t get any tattoos. They’re not inherently sinful so long as they’re not done for false religious practise. Besides, if you observe Christmas and/or Halloween, you have no room to talk, for these holidays have pagan origins as well but aren’t inherently sinful because we’re not engaging with the pagan false gods. But those are discussions for another day.

Lastly, remember Jesus came to fulfil the Law (Matthew 5:17). He fulfilled the ceremonial part of the Law (i.e. sacrifices) and the civil-political parts of the Law (i.e. the Leviticus passage above and many others), but God’s moral Law still applies (i.e. the Ten Commandments) because God’s moral Law is written on the hearts of all men (Romans 2:15). So, as Christians, we are no longer under law but grace (Romans 6:14)—Jesus set us free from the Law. This means we no longer have to make sacrifices to God because Jesus was that sacrifice, and we have also been lifted from the civil-political burdens of the Law such as Leviticus 19:26-31 because Jesus fulfilled it by His works. However, God’s moral Law still binds on us all, so if we do anything that breaks any of those commandments, we are sinning. Only unbelief damns us to Hell, however. So if I’m somehow wrong about this whole tattoo thing, that doesn’t mean Christians with tattoos are going to Hell. Thanks be to God that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).

*Disclaimer: this article has been republished with the full permission of Sheep of Christ, which is owned by the author.*


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