What does the Bible say about tattoos? Are tattoos a sin? Here is a scripture-based guide to help you make the decision on whether or not to get inked.


What Does the Bible Say About Tattoos?

Chris Pennington

11 mins

I got my tattoo at the apex of the pandemic (a risky endeavor, to be sure).

And if you, too, have been inked before, you’ve likely experienced a variety of tattoo-related-feedback. I received some words from friends, some from family, and even some from a woman on a plane who told me that tattoos prevent one’s soul from leaving their body in the afterlife.

I didn’t tell her about mine - mainly out of fear she’d try to do a laser removal of it at 18,000 feet.

No matter who you poll, you’ll get quite the assortment of thoughts on tattoos - regardless of one’s spirituality. And beyond what people think - what does God think?

I work for a church, and many say tattoos are outlawed in the Bible. So I also have to wonder, am I going to get fired?

Are tattoos a sin?

Does the Bible give us any guidance in this realm? Does God boil with hate towards those who get inked, or does he not care and just tell us to do whatever we want?

Whether or not tattoos are sinful doesn’t make or break my faith, nor do I believe it has to for any Christian. But how we engage with parts of the Bible that may be confusing can help us grow trust in God deeper than we previously held.

Spoiler Alert: I obviously decided that it’s okay for me to get a tattoo, but you may decide differently. And that’s alright.

That being said…

What does the Bible say about tattoos?

A common answer you may have already heard (or possibly the first answer you’d get on Google) when asking what the Bible says about tattoos is a reference to Leviticus 19:28 from the Old Testament:

“You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.”

This verse is the only place in the Bible that directly addresses tattoos, so let’s start here.

Funny enough, this is the same scripture I web-searched on my iPod Touch during my junior year of high school when someone asked me what I thought about tattoos. Seeing that verse pop up immediately, I responded, “Well, looks like we shouldn’t get them!”

But wait - the verse before this one states, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” I’m not sure about you, but I’ve been getting a 0.5 fade and trimming my nonexistent beard for a few years now, so…am I doing this all wrong?

We need more context, and it’s always helpful to look at Jesus and the New Testament letters when asking these questions.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says that Jesus is the “culmination” of the Old Testament law (Romans 10:4) and is “our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…”

So it seems like Jesus abolished the law here, so let’s get inked! But wait, Jesus, himself says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” So, not so fast? It’s still confusing.

What does the Bible say about Tattoos?

Most Christians throughout history take some Old Testament laws as guidelines for all times, while others are thought to be specific to the times of Ancient Israel. For example, we assume the Ten Commandments carry over and are for all God-followers for all time (Jesus affirms these Ten Commandments in Mark 10:19 and in several other teachings).

Still, we tend not to worry about wearing blended fabrics like the cotton-poly blend t-shirt I’m currently wearing, even though they are outlawed in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11.

When deciding which OT (Old Testament) laws to pay attention to, we have to dig deeper and get into the ancient context and see God’s intent with the laws he established.

Yes, I know it’s complicated, and saying some OT laws apply today and some don’t apply leaves the door open for abuse (and many love to run through that door!), but God clearly wants us to wrestle with him and his word. That’s how a relationship is formed. The word ‘Israel,’ the name of God’s people in the OT, is literally translated as “Wrestles with God”!

So when interpreting the Old Testament, consistency and context matter. First, if the specifics or substance of a law is repeated consistently in every age, throughout the thousands of years that scripture covers, and (or) is affirmed by Jesus himself, it’s a good bet that it was meant to apply to all time. In the case of tattoos, that’s not what we see.

Second, we have to look at the context. Some of the practices outlawed in the Old Testament Law had a very specific reason for being outlawed–a reason that does not really exist today–so they don’t necessarily apply in a literal sense to our modern context, even if the truth that they are based on is still truth and therefore supreme. But to know if that’s the case, we must examine the history.

The Lore of Inking

We must put ourselves in that period to gain insight into those reasons. Because while the reason behind the forbiddance of tattoos in this passage is not explicitly stated, I’m not sure it was because God hated seeing people get a tiny heart inked on their ankles or barb-wire around their biceps.

Let’s take a quick look at the state of the world at the time this law would have been commanded. Historically, tattoos were done for many reasons that weren’t necessarily recreational. Just ask Ötzi, Europe’s oldest known natural human mummy who lived between 3350 and 3105 B.C. and had 61(!) tattoos.1

Sadly for Ötzi, though, his tats were likely not for showing off at a coffee shop or the beach. Marks for crimes, prostitution, or pain relief were the most common reasons until the after-Jesus time. Furthermore, many would cut their skin and make tattoos honoring false gods or other superstitions. The referenced tattoos were likely ceremonial, expressing the false gods that the tattoo bearer was worshiping. So, God had a specific reason not to be too keen on them.

Are tattoos a sin?

Sooooo, are tattoos a sin?

The commands to not get tattooed, not cut one’s beard, or wear a certain kind of fabric seem to be out of a desire for God to see his people turn from worshiping idols and set themselves apart from the rest of the world (a world with outrageous and ungodly reasoning for tattooing and performing other acts).

In fact, this desire of God – to set His people apart from worldly living – was actually a central part of his heart in every Old Testament law (Exodus 19:5).

The specifics behind each law are only sometimes carried forward by Jesus (or the other New Testament writers) because the world is constantly changing. What may be necessary to set one apart from the culture at one time may not always be necessary for another time.

Tattoos are one of those areas. They are never mentioned again in the Bible. The deeper truth and law that we are only to worship God the Father is what matters and what should drive us.

Because of this, I don’t believe, and many faithful Christians I know think similarly, that tattoos are outrightly forbidden in our time by scripture, even though there are very faithful followers of Jesus who disagree with me on that. And again, that’s okay.

So should we all just get all tatted up and not worry about it?

Not so fast.

Reading (Not Just Between) The Lines

There are some “gray-area” topics that the Bible doesn’t explicitly speak on (Tiktok, for example, at least to my knowledge). But every topic can still be viewed through God’s wisdom and guide us on how to live our lives in obedience to him.

Here are a few different passages we can look to for direction on “gray-area” topics, like tattoos:

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

“…but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” 1 Peter 3:4

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.” 1 Corinthians 10:23-24

So…why can’t God just tell us exactly what to do in every scenario? Or maybe a better question is, why doesn’t He if he’s all-knowing?

What does the Bible say about Tattoos?

These gray-area decisions, which can be hair-pulling at times, are what I believe to be a part of the true joy of following Jesus.

If Jesus was a God who gave us a book lining out every rule for every life scenario in every time of human existence, would that be a joyful relationship? If a parent followed their child every second from birth till their death, telling them how to behave in every life scenario, would that child ever grow out of being a child?

The parts of following Jesus that require prayer, faith, and trust when we don’t have every answer written in scripture grow our relationship and intimacy with God tenfold.

Maybe our question shouldn’t be “Are tattoos and sin”?, but rather “Are tattoos a sin for me?”.

To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo

God gives us permission to tell him what we want or need, or what we think we want or need (Philippians 4:6). So, as we decide to tattoo or not tattoo, I encourage us to take the time to pray about it and even ask God what he thinks.

Because yes, I believe Christians have the freedom to get a tattoo. But scripture says that everything that does not come from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). So, just because I think a particular tattoo design might be cool, doesn’t mean it’s good for me or not sinful (I know friends that have gotten inked up for sports teams that they certainly regret).

My tattoo is of scripture that I had been praying over for years and had deeply woven into the everyday fabric of my life. I felt confident in my decision with God. Though I don’t believe the only allowed tattoos need to be Bible verses, I believe this one was a permissible and beneficial decision for me to be reminded of that specific truth every day.

So in my case, I believed it was out of a desire to glorify God and know him better that led me to get inked. But there have certainly been tattoo ideas I’ve had that I know would not be for godly reasons that I have had to refrain from.

And this word (doing everything out of faith) goes beyond tattooing. God calls us to be intentional with our lives (James 4:7) and our decisions. I wish for the wisdom and freedom God gave me to be the guide to not just inking but my entire life.

The tattoo idea you may be wrestling with right now is not the biggest question. It is - am I willing to submit myself fully to God’s will for me?

If so, you’re on the right path to whether or not you should be inked.

Disclaimer: This article is 100% human-generated.

1Smithsonian, Ancient ink: Iceman Otzi has the world’s oldest tattoos

Chris Pennington
Meet the author

Chris Pennington

Hi. I'm Chris. I'd like to think I'm an open book, which usually consists of useless hockey knowledge, Cajun food and a love of cats. Ask me about the time I broke the law to meet LeBron.

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