Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thoughts on Tattoos

Recently in an NFL Game on tv, I noticed a big offensive lineman with tattoos running all the way up his arms. Tattoos and body piercing have long since become standard fare in our culture. Is there a biblical position on this issue?

Focus On The Family offers this comment regarding tattoos and body piercing. “Since the Bible does not offer a definitive answer regarding these topics, neither will we. However, we can provide some food for thought.”1 I offer some thoughts in that same vein.

The Bible is not completely silent about tattoos. “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.”2 The Jews are generally against the practice to this day. Rabbi Howard Berman of Columbus, Ohio said, "Jewish law says that the body that God gave us is more of a loan than a gift, and our responsibility is to keep it as well as we can… We very strongly frown on tattoos."3 This is a basic position regarding tattoos held by some Christians as well. Our body is recognized as belonging to God or being the temple of God.

Some see tattooing as rooted in paganism. It was once common to associate tattoos with “heathen” tribes. A heathen was “an unconverted individual of a people that do not acknowledge the god of the Bible ...”4 Admittedly this language sounds harsh. I employ it though because I feel it is part of the issue at stake. (Jesus used the word twice, referring to Gentiles or unbelievers; Matt 6:7, Matt 18:17)

The practices of tattooing and body piercing by all accounts have ancient roots. In past times sailors brought back the practice from remote, far-flung tribes. A log entry by Captain James Cook illustrates the unusual character of body piercing to his crew in 1770. “Some part of their Bodys had been painted with red, and one of them had his upper lip and breast painted with Streakes of white… In the morning 4 of the Natives made us another Short Visit; …One of these men had a hole through the Bridge of his nose, in which he stuck a piece of Bone as thick as my finger. Seeing this we examin’d all their Noses, and found that they had all holes for the same purpose; they had likewise holes in their Ears…”5

What is new about tattooing is it’s current widespread popularity among westerners. Back in the 60’s tattoos were mainly limited to former military men, merchant sailors, or bikers. No women had tattoos. Interestingly, the theme of many of the tattoos of that era was of a sinister nature: skulls, dragons, and the like. To some extent, that is still true today. I saw a skull and crossbones on the back of a young mother’s neck at a store recently.

Admittedly many of the designs of what is now called “body art” are not morbid in any way. Many tattoos and body piercing are simply for cosmetic purposes. But what does it signify about our society in general?

Are tattoos and the more extreme body piercings a good idea for Christians? In our postmodern society do tattoos and body piercing incline toward old-fashioned heathenism? Or is it an innocent expression of a person’s individuality, not even worth talking about?

One survey suggests that among tattooed people above 25 years of age, as high as one quarter of them regret that they got a tattoo.6 We change as we go through life but a tattoo can be hard and painful to change. I recently learned that some have had their ears surgically repaired as the result of stretching.

I personally regret some things done when I was young. The Bible suggests this type of reaction.“After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”7

In another 3-5 years, will the fad of tattooing be over? Personally I think it will.

Is it a primary issue for Christians or a peripheral? Probably a peripheral one. Is it a good idea for someone who wants to honor Jesus Christ?

As more food for thought, I read a good Biblical study on this topic. It’s worth reading. I would urge any person contemplating a tattoo to read this first. There’s much to consider, including health, marriage, and employability issues.


1 - http://family.custhelp.com/cgi-bin/family.cfg/php/enduser/std_adp.php?p_faqid=13998&p_created=1091121562&p_topview=1
2 - Leviticus 19:28 (New International Version)
3 - Mary Beth Lane, The Columbus Dispatch, April 9, 2007, “For Some Believers Tattoos Signify Faith”
4 - http://dictionary.reference.com/
5 - http://www.the-great-barrier-reef-experience.com/captain-james-cook-journal-july5-11.html
6 - http://www.wordwise-bible-studies.com/tattoos-and-piercing.html
7 - Jeremiah 31:19 (New International Version)


  1. Dear Mike,
    I dont agree with tattoo,s of any kind. i have learnt to accept people with it.
    i personally have heard some christians say they want to take the tattoo out after becoming Christians. i honestly dont know what to say when confronted with this Question of being accecpted as they are by god?
    Have you ever come accross this question?
    Thanks Bro.Mike for the insight i am blessed to discuss this issue.
    Thanks again


  2. Thanks for the comment CM. I think the Bible study that I placed a link to, in my blog is quite balanced on this issue. It has a lot of good points to think about. Do I think it is a sin to have a tattoo? No, unless it was some immoral picture or message. But I think there are good practical and spiritual issues to consider. I would not recommend anyone to get a tattoo.

  3. Mike what an interesting topic for discussion! I once heard the tattoo/piercing rage described as "the new barbarianism". I've also heard tattooing/piercing referred to as "body art". Maybe an attempt to somehow reconcile it and make it more acceptable? I can remember discussing this with my teens, from their view, they questioned how is it different from my wearing pierced earrings or dying/coloring my hair? We had some great discussions as they sorted out what they believed and formulated their own positions. It would be interesting for me, now to ask them as they are grown, what their thoughts are and how they felt at the time we had those discussions....hmm...Thanks Mike! A chance to have a conversation with my sons! I'm looking forward to it too! Great topic....

  4. Thanks Sandy. Interestingly, I talked with a 39 year-old guy last week with lots of tattoos. He showed me a couple with Buddhist religious themes. He is now a Christian... and seemed a bit apologetic about the darkly colored buddhist tattoos. Then he showed me one of the cross on his other arm. He told me, "This will be the last one I get."

  5. I have advised our son about tatoos with these thoughts...my style and tastes have changed over the years, in clothing, hair, jewelry etc - thankfully none of the choices I have made in those categories are permanent ...why would I think that I would still like and want a tatoo that I chose today in 10, 20 or 30 years? Interestingly enough I have heard many people say that getting tatoos is addictive, which immediately raised a red flag with me. A young lady with whom I work recently acquired her first tatoo and that evening, when the topic of tatooing having addictive properties came up, she was admitted she already wanted another one. It is certainly wise to count the total cost of such a decision.


Quotes of Note ... The Invisible World

“Spiritual warfare is learning to recognize the strategies, refusing to cooperate with them, and aggressively cutting off the schemes of the devil in Jesus’ name.” Dean Sherman

“those who protest that God cannot exist because there is too much evil evident in life… Evil exists; therefore, the Creator does not. That is categorically stated… If evil exists, one must assume that good exists in order to know the difference. If good exists, one must assume that a moral law exists by which to measure good and evil. But if a moral law exists, must not one posit an ultimate source of moral law, or at least an objective basis for a moral law? By an objective basis, I mean something that is transcendingly true at all times, regardless of whether I believed it or not.” Ravi Zacharias

“But the Devil is no big threat to God’s purposes; he is not even remotely comparable in power. He has been given a limited time before his final judgment to try to prove his case, just as all other moral beings who have chosen to live in rebellion against heaven.” W.A. Pratney

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I've served as a life-long missionary in Samoa, the Pacific region, India, and now in Pennsylvania. The Christian faith is reasonable and works in real life. It is true to the facts. Hope you enjoy some of the thoughts. I appreciate feedback.

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