jesus tattooI received the following question:

I have been considering getting a tattoo. I have seen people with the Jesus fish, or the cross on their ankles or backs or wherever. I have also thought that getting a tattoo of those things may just be to justify getting a tattoo. I want a tattoo that is not something “Christian” like this. However, I have this dilemma. What does God want? Is it right for me to get the tattoo if it’s of a fish?

Well, you ask a good question. You are right to think that we need to turn to God and His Word to solve the dilemma. Really, it is good to consider in every decision we make in life whether or not it would be pleasing to God or in His will.

When we look for passages in the Bible that talk about tattoos, we really don’t have much to go on. One could argue that the mark of the beast is a tattoo (Revelation 13:16 & 17; 14:9 & 11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4), but I think then one would also have to admit that the name of the Father written in the foreheads of the 144,000 is a tattoo (Revelation 14:1.) In any case, neither one of these is strictly called a “tattoo.” Really, the only time tattoos are mentioned is in the Old Testament law in Leviticus 19:28.

Leviticus 19:26-28 reads, “26You shall not eat anything with the blood, nor shall you practice divination or soothsaying. 27You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard. 28You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.”

These verses not only outlaw tattooing, but they also outlaw goatees (disfiguring the edges of your beard.) The question is: why were these things outlawed? Are goatees and tattoos naturally evil, or is there some other reason that God outlawed them?

When we look at the context of verse 28 (which I have given above,) we see immediately that God is dealing with heathen practices. First of all, he outlaws eating anything with the blood. Notice that it does not outlaw DRINKING blood, but rather EATING it. It was a belief of some pagan religions that one’s strength or power was in the blood or the flesh of the individual. Thus, it was thought that by eating the still-warm heart of a warrior you had killed (or some other bloody organ) you could incorporate into yourself that person’s power or strength. This was a disgusting and heathen practice, and God outlawed it unequivocally.

The next practice God outlawed was divination or soothsaying. This had to do with the magic arts and seeking to divine the future (similar to our psychics.) This was depending on some sort of “system” to divine the future, or else some demonic power. Of course having contact with demons was wrong, but so was trying to find some system in nature to predict the future (like the stars.) The problem was, even if it was a system rather than a demon (and even if there was any legitimacy to it,) that it was depending on something other than God to guide and direct the future. God and God only should be the One we depend on for our futures, not some soothsayer.

Next, the Lord outlaws shaving around the sides of the head (similar to some hairstyles today) or shaving the corners of the beard (today called a goatee.) Why were these things outlawed? Because they were naturally wrong and always harmful? No, because they again had to do with heathen practices! Both this hairstyle and this “beardstyle” were worn by devotees to pagan gods to show their devotion to them. They were highly religiously significant among idol worshippers. Thus, they were outlawed by the Lord. There was nothing naturally wrong with a “bowl-cut” or with wearing your beard in a goatee. Yet these things in the days Leviticus was written symbolized devotion to idols, and so the Lord outlawed them.

Next cutting your body for the dead is outlawed. This was a form of ancestor worship, and thus was displeasing to God. We need to honor God, not our ancestors. They are dead, and can no longer help us or affect us in any way in this life. God should be the One we rely on, not some dead ancestor. Thus this practice was outlawed by the Lord.

Finally, the Lord outlaws placing tattoo marks upon yourself. Again, was this practice simply wrong in and of itself? No, it was wrong because it had to do with the worship of pagan idols. The polytheists would tattoo themselves, again as a sign of devotion to one god or another. The Lord wanted His people to have nothing to do with such a practice, and so He commanded His people to refrain from getting any tattoos. Thus, it was what the tattoo symbolized, devotion to an idol, and not the actual tattoo itself that was the problem.

That said, we come to our present day. We live in the dispensation of grace, when all laws such as these have passed away. This does not mean that we can do whatever we want, for “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.” (I Corinthians 10:23) Yet, we must ask ourselves, how should a believer use such a passage as Leviticus 19:26-28 today?

The answer, I think, must be that we should avoid those practices and traditions that are recognized by a society as dedication to ungodly things or as devotion to false gods. Wearing the dot on the forehead, for example, although never outlawed in Scripture is today a sign of devotion to a false god, and so no good believing woman should use it. T-shirts that proclaim ungodly messages are another thing that should be avoided. These are the sorts of things in our day that we would avoid for the same reasons these things were to be avoided in Leviticus. Other things, though, like cannibalism or visiting psychics, are basically the same today as they were back then, and so should be avoided by all believers.

Yet what about goatees and tattoos? I think the answer to that question must be provided by society around us. I don’t believe that the men in our country who wear a goatee are doing it in order to worship a false god. It is just a style, and no one seriously thinks they have any obligation to any god because they follow it. In the minds of Americans in our society, goatees have nothing to do with false gods. Thus, I think that any believer who wants to wear a goatee in our day is free to do so, as long as he is doing it with a right attitude in his heart and without any sort of attitude of being unfaithful to God or honoring a false idol.

I believe the same thing is true of tattoos as is true of goatees. They are no longer thought of as a sign of devotion to any god. Rather, they are an adherence to a style that is popular in our day. At one point it was popular with the tough, biker types. Then it was popular with the punk, skater types. Now it is more of a popular “prep” or “jock” style. But regardless, during all of these different stylistic periods, it has had nothing to do with worshipping false idols or signaling devotion to pagan gods. Thus, I do not believe that it is something that a believer needs to avoid as being false to his faith by doing it. It was outlawed, not because it is naturally wrong, but because it was done with an attitude of worshipping a false idol. Thus, since this is no longer the attitude with which it is done today, it is permissible for the believer to do.

That said, Leviticus seems to indicate that God doesn’t really want us marking ourselves with tattoos in His honor. He marks people with His name in Revelation, but that does not necessarily mean that we should do so. I would actually have more of a problem with the fish or the crosses that you mentioned earlier than I would with a “secular” tattoo. God never asked us to tattoo ourselves in His honor…rather, He asked His people not to do so. Thus, if anything, marking yourself with a “Christian” tattoo would be a violation of God’s command, if anything is. If we really want to say that our tattoos are not done for religious purposes, then we should not make them religious tattoos. Getting a “Christian” tattoo would be a violation of this. I am not necessarily saying that “Christian” tattoos are a sin, for I don’t think I have any clear instructions from God in this regard in the dispensation of grace. But if God had really wanted tattoos, He could have told the Israelites not to tattoo themselves with things devoting themselves to false gods, but rather to only tattoo themselves with things relating to Him. Yet He did not, but told them not to tattoo themselves period. Therefore, from what God said in Leviticus, I would guess that He doesn’t really want us tattooing ourselves to honor Him. We can do so if we really want to in the dispensation of grace, but I can’t help but think that this would be kind of like giving someone a present that they didn’t really welcome or want. People don’t appreciate it when we do this, and I doubt that God does either.