By Clarence L. Haynes Jr., Crosswalk.com
Many years ago, tattoos were associated with sailors and military men. However, in the 1970s, tattoos started becoming more popular among the mainstream. Today, tattoos are extremely popular and people from all walks of life and every socio-economic grouping have tattoos – and not just one but multiple. This phenomenon is not just a secular one, because Christians are also getting tatted up.
With every fad or popular mainstream idea, especially the secular ones that seep into the church, it always leads to debate. There have been debates over music styles, worship, clothes, among others. On the debate stage today, we bring tattoos. We will consider the question: are tattoos sinful and can we get to heaven with tattoos on our body?
What Does the Bible Say about Tattoos?
There is a Scripture that talks about tattoos specifically, and is what many people refer to, especially if they are against tattoos. This verse comes out of Leviticus.
“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28).
On the surface, this looks like a straightforward command. But it requires a little digging to understand what this verse means, why God said this, and how we apply this today.
When you consider Leviticus in context, what God was most concerned about was distinguishing his people from the pagan nations around them. He wanted his people to avoid their practices. Cutting your skin for the dead was associated with pagan rituals in relation to mourning rites and, for that reason, God forbade them. It is unclear if tattooing was also part of the mourning rites, but since they appear to be part of some pagan rituals, God did not want his people taking part in this activity.
We should consider the words “tattoo marks” found in this verse. Here is what commentator Jay Sklar wrote about it.
“The words translated as tattoo marks (kĕtōbet qa‘ăqa‘) occur only here. Although their precise meaning is unclear, the first word is related to ‘writing’ or ‘marking’, and the context supports some sort of marking on the flesh (either tattooing or perhaps painting). It is not clear whether this is connected with mourning rites or is simply another pagan custom that involves putting marks on the body; in either case, it is probably prohibited for the same reasons as the preceding practices.”
The Challenge of This Verse in Relationship to Tattoos Today
If you rely solely on this verse to conclude tattoos are forbidden, you are going to run into a problem. The problem begins with the verse before it, which tells you not to shave your sideburns or trim your beard. Clearly no one who gets a haircut, shapes the edges of their hair, or trims their beard today is committing a sin.
If you are going to be consistent, you cannot apply the letter of the law to getting a tattoo, but forget about the law when getting a haircut. For those who say tattoos are okay, this could be their argument. They view this command as part of Old Testament law, which we are no longer required to follow. If you want to take a deeper look at what the Bible says about tattoos, you can read this article by Will Honeycutt.
Is Getting a Tattoo a Sin?
Because tattoos are popular in our culture, that alone does not make getting a tattoo a sin. When God forbade tattoos in Leviticus, it is because he identified them with the pagan rituals of the nations surrounding Israel. For most people today, this is not the case. There is no connection between their tattoos and pagan rituals. Tattoos are a popular form or expression, and getting a tattoo is not a question of sin, but a question of choice. Yet, there is a scenario where getting a tattoo can indeed be sinful. If the tattoo reflects some level of rebellion, then it could be sinful.
If you are considering getting a tattoo, the question you should ask yourself is why do you want to get it? Your motive for getting the tattoo will determine if it is sinful or not. Whether you are deciding on getting a tattoo or some other choice, Paul gives us a guiding principle to abide by.
“Some of you say, ‘We can do whatever we want to!’ But I tell you not everything may be good or helpful” (1 Corinthians 10:23, CEV).
Before you get a tattoo, ask yourself if it is good or helpful to you.
Can We Get to Heaven with Tattoos?
If you are wondering if you can get to heaven with tattoos, stop wondering because the answer is yes. Having a tattoo does not qualify or disqualify you from entering heaven.
The condition for entering heaven is not what is on the outside of your body. The condition for entering heaven is what is in your heart. Have you put your total faith, hope, and trust in Christ alone for salvation? This determines your entrance into heaven. This does not mean you should go and get tattoos all over your body, but you can be comfortable knowing you can get to heaven with tattoos.
Will We Still Have Our Tattoos in Heaven?
If you have a tattoo on your body now, I don’t believe you will have those same tattoos on your body in heaven. In heaven, we will receive a brand-new glorified body, completely different from these perishable bodies we now inhabit. These bodies will be incorruptible and imperishable. They will be free from blemish and therefore there will be no tattoos on them.
Also, from another perspective, many times people connect their tattoos to things that have happened in this life. In heaven, God will make all things new, so you will no longer have a need or desire for those tattoos.
What if I Got a Sinful Tattoo before Getting Saved?
If you got a sinful tattoo before you were saved that does not disqualify you from heaven. You can get to heaven with tattoos, even a sinful one. However, while you are still here on earth, you must consider what to do with that tattoo, since it no longer reflects who you are.
In this case, you may just cover it up so no one can see it. If that is not possible or satisfying to you, then consider going through the medical process of having it removed. If you decide to remove it, please consult with your doctor so they can address the potential risks associated with removing your tattoo.
With tattoos, think long and hard before you decide to get one. Ask yourself why you want to get it? Even if you are one hundred percent certain this is what you want to do, wait a little longer before you do it. Tattoos are permanent marks on your body and there are many people who have gotten tattoos and regretted it after the fact. While tattoos will not take away your salvation and you can get to heaven with tattoos, it’s possible you may not enjoy the look of it while you are on earth. If you choose to get a tattoo that is your decision. Just make sure you know why you are doing it and think through the entire process before you do.
Jay Sklar, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. David G. Firth, vol. 3, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2013), 250.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Aaron Amat
Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. His most recent book is The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. Clarence is also committed to helping 10,000 people learn how to study the Bible and has just released his first Bible study course called Bible Study Basics. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.