What Does the Bible Say About Tattoos?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 9, 2020
    Last Updated: January 3, 2021

The Bible is a hard book to decipher. There are thousands of chapters and verses that tell a story and spread God’s word, but almost everyone interprets it differently. 

In the English language alone, there are over fifty different translations of the original Bible. These are popularly known as the New International Version (NIV), the New King James Version (NKJV) and the American Standard Version (ASV). Different Christian denominations will use different versions of the Bible, and as a result, their interpretations of the text vary.

Whether you’re a regular church-goer, have a devout Christian in your family, or are a simple believer who wants a tattoo, you’re probably wondering what the Bible says about tattoos. Are they a sin? Can I only get a religious design? Will I go to hell if I get a tattoo?
Unfortunately, we can’t tell you whether or not getting a tattoo is accepted in your religion and if you should get one. Tattoos have been around for hundreds of years, and in this article, we cover everything you need to know about what the Bible says about tattoos and popular opinion regarding the practice, so that you can make an informed decision.

The Bible and Tattoos

The Bible does not explicitly mention tattoos at any point. Specific translations of the Bible may change “marks” to “tattoos,” though this is not what the original book was saying.

Leviticus 19:28

The most highly regarded Bible verse about tattoos is Leviticus 19:28, a book in the Old Testament. It states in the King James Version (KJV), “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”

The translation of Leviticus 19:28 rarely changes based on the translation used. Some translations specifically mention tattoos instead of marks, while others change Lord to Jehovah.

In Leviticus 19:28, God is explicitly referring to cuttings and marks made in mourning “for the dead.” Back in those days, it was common for people to mark themselves with tattoos and scars to honor those they lost. So, whether this verse warns against tattoos that are not related to the dead is up to personal interpretation.

In the same chapter, though, Leviticus 19:27 states (KJV), “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” This refers to cutting the hair on your temples and side of your head, as well as trimming facial hair. 

If we are not following all of Leviticus’s statements, then why is 19:28 highly regarded when it comes to getting a tattoo?

The Old Testament Versus the New Testament

The chapter of Leviticus that specifically mentions printing marks on your body is located in the Bible’s Old Testament.

Denominations are continually facing the question from their followers, “Do we have to follow the Old Testament?”

Many religions have a different, complicated answer to the same, simple question. There are two significant schools of thought regarding the change in the Testaments: Covenant and Dispensational Theology.

Covenant and Dispensational Theology

Covenant Theology is one of the frameworks for understanding how the Bible works. In Covenant Theology, rules stated in the Old Testament apply unless they are specifically discarded or modified in the New Testament. 

On the other hand, Dispensational Theology believes that rules do not apply unless they are restated explicitly in the New Testament. This is because the rules set forth in the Old Testament were targeted towards a particular group of people, and new rules need to be outlined in the New Testament.

It can be challenging to decipher what theology your church follows. Walking into service and asking the nearest person whether or not they follow Covenant or Dispensational Theology, will usually get you a look like you have three heads.

Some denominations follow neither Covenant nor Dispensational Theology. Dispensational Theology has a series of branches of thought, including Classic, Revised and Progressive Dispensationalism. In the middle, there is also New Covenant Theology, which follows a middle-ground stance between the two major frameworks.

Ceremonial, Civil and Moral Law

Another criterion Christianity uses to determine what laws from the Old Testament to follow is the categorization of the laws into ceremonial, civil and moral categories.

Ceremonial laws were targeted explicitly towards Israel’s worship. In Hebrew, ceremonial laws are called hukkim or chuqqah, which means “custom of the nation.” Since the Christian church is not of the nation of Islam, Christians do not need to follow ceremonial laws, such as dietary and clothing restrictions.

Civil laws referred to daily life in Israel. Civil laws were essentially an extension of moral laws and dictated punishment for violating God’s laws, such as committing murder or adultery.

Moral laws are often viewed as a set of ordinances. This includes the Ten Commandments. They promote the welfare of those who follow them, such as promising eternal life in heaven for following regulations on sexual conduct, justice,and respect.

Many religions will only follow moral laws set forth by the Old Testament, which is why the Ten Commandments still have relevance. Civil and ceremonial laws are still regarded as necessary, yet the follow-through is not. For example, murder is still looked down upon, but not all murderers are immediately sentenced to death like they were in the Bible because today’s civilization is different than Israel in the Bible.

Some Christians believe that when Jesus died on the cross, he fulfilled these requirements and that they are now instead under the law of Christ. This belief stems from Galatians 6:2 (KJV), which states, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

The law of Christ is then determined to be, according to Matthew 22:36-40 (KJV), ‘”Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”‘

1 Corinthians 3:17

For those who do not believe in the laws set forth by the Old Testament, they fall upon 1 Corinthians 3:17 (KJV) in their argument against tattoos. It says, “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”

This verse explains that your body is a temple of God, which is holy. Many Christians go as far as to say that your body does not belong to you, and instead, it belongs to God. They believe that “defiling the temple” involves getting tattoos. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines defile as “to corrupt the purity or perfection of.”

This is tricky territory because many Christians have ear piercings, yet are not criticized by others. So what is considered defiling the temple of God, and what isn’t? Why are ear piercings, hair coloring and tanning not scrutinized, yet other body modification forms are?

Thessalonians 5:22

Thessalonians 5:22 states, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” 

Many people associate tattoos with satanism, violence and evil, while others consider them an art form. This provides a gateway into the religious belief that getting a tattoo is acceptable as long as the intentions behind it and the design itself are pure.

For example, many devout Christians will adorn their body with crosses and holy symbols that project their faith to anyone who sees the tattoos. In fact, many Coptic Christians of Egypt have a tattoo of a cross on their forehead or neck to signify their faith to others and gain entrance into churches.

Pope Francis

In the Catholic Church, the Pope is the supreme head of the church worldwide. Pope Francis, who came into office in 2013, is one of the most progressive Popes the world has witnessed, as the Catholic faith is revered as a religion with strict practices.

In 2018, Pope Francis met with many young delegates at the Legionaries of Christ’s Maria Mater Ecclesia College in Rome. In response to a question about tattoos, he replied, “Don’t be afraid of tattoos.” He mentioned that for centuries, Eritrean Christians and others have gotten tattoos of the cross.

He went on to clarify, “Of course, there can be exaggerations,” he said, but said that a tattoo “is a sign of belonging,” and asking a young person about their tattoos can be a great place to begin a dialogue about priorities, values and belonging.

Before approaching this matter, Pope Francis had told the young delegates that they are the ones who can help fight the Catholic church on the toxic mindset that “it’s always been done this way.”

The world we live in is continuously changing, and so is religion.

The Holy Word on Tattoos

Long story short, the Bible does not specifically mention tattoos, still, that doesn’t mean certain verses are not associated with the practice of tattooing. 

Among the most popular verses are Leviticus 19:28 and 1 Corinthians 3:17. Thessalonians 5:22 also makes an appearance in some arguments. Holy officials, such as Pope Francis, do not shame the art of tattoos, but rather see them as a window into someone else’s life values.

Tattoos can become a problem in religion if they expressly represent satanic and unholy symbols, or are only gotten out of a perverted sense of pride. If someone is only getting tattoos because they seek an unnatural amount of attention, then this is viewed negatively by any church.

If you’re worried about violating your faith by getting a tattoo, the best place to start is at your church. Consulting high-ranking church officials such as the pastor or priest will help push you in a direction to start your own research. If you believe in praying, then this can help as well.