Site Navigation

Can a Christian Get a Tattoo?

Can a Christian get a tattoo?

I get asked this question a couple of times of year, usually after a relatively new believer has successfully read through the Book of Leviticus for the first time. Leviticus 19:28 says:

“You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:28 ESV)

Does that mean that a Christian cannot get a tattoo?

Most theologians and Bible scholars would argue that the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ. He is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. The ceremonial law was preparatory in nature. John Calvin said:

“The ceremonial law of the Jews was a tutelage by which the Lord was pleased to exercise, as it were, the childhood of that people, until the fulness of the time should come when he was fully to manifest his wisdom to the world, and exhibit the reality of those things which were then adumbrated by figures, (Gal. 3:24; 4:4).”[1]

However, while the ceremonial law (including laws about tattoos) was preparatory, the underlying principles remain in effect. Therefore, the task of the modern-day New Testament believer is to ask good “why questions”. Why does God tell us not to yoke a donkey and an ox together? Why does he forbid sowing two types of seed in the same field? Why does he say not to tattoo ourselves for the dead? What is the principle being taught in these elementary ways?

The verse about tattoos is found in a section of laws dealing pagan practices.

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. (Leviticus 19:26-28 ESV)

These are all pagan activities that believers should have nothing to do with. Pagans drink blood in their religious rituals, they consult fortune tellers, and they disfigure themselves to honour the dead. As members of the covenant community, we believe different things about God, about how we communicate with God and about what happens to us as people when we die. These beliefs should be reflected in our behaviour.

That was the original message in the text.

Modern day readers rightly wonder what principles exist within this text that ought to be extracted and appropriately applied in our day. Specifically, does this text mean that a Christian can’t get a tattoo?

Strictly speaking, these verses are not prohibiting tattoos as body art, but rather tattoos as burial rituals. Thus, I think the more important takeaway is that God’s people should not mourn like those who have no hope. Christians should be very careful about turning their bodies into living tombstones. Having the name or face of a departed loved one inscribed on your body seems to communicate extreme grief and the absence of hope – they very thing we are being told not to do here in Leviticus. Incidentally, the Apostle Paul tells believers the same thing in 1 Thessalonians 4:13:

“we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 ESV)

The main principle would seem to be that our funeral rituals should reflect what we believe about the dignity of the body and the hope of those who die in faith. I’m not sure it says anything about body art per se. When trying to make a decision about whether to get a decorative tattoo one would likely want to think carefully about how to apply what the Apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 3:3-4 regarding external adornment:

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—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 3:3-4 ESV)

The Bible warns us about trying to curate or express an identity through external adornments, rather we should focus on character development.

We should also think about the counsel of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians when he encouraged them:

“glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:20 ESV)

Believers should look like they belong wholly to God and should put more emphasis on who they are on the inside than how they look on the outside. I’ll leave it to the Holy Spirit and your conscience to determine how to apply that in terms of specifics.


Pastor Paul Carter

If you are interested in more Bible teaching from Pastor Paul you can access the entire library of Into The Word episodes through the Audio tab on the Into the Word website. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or Google Play.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), paragraph 3315.