What, if anything, does the Bible say about tattoos and body piercings? It seems that you cannot go anywhere without seeing people who have one or the other. I know that the Old Testament forbids tattoos, but many had body piercings. Could there be a connection between the acceptance of tattoos and the end time—“taking the mark of the beast?” Also, what about those who tattoo their bodies with a Bible verse, cross, or something that reflects their faith? Our bodies are the temple of the Lord, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If one’s inner beauty is reflective of Christ, what’s the harm in having a tattoo that reflects that? I also would like to make young people aware of the lifelong ramifications of getting a tattoo.
The New Testament says nothing about tattoos and body piercings. The prohibition against such practices is in the Old Testament, especially in the Mosaic Law. Leviticus 19:28 says, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” Leviticus 21:5, in reference to the priests, says, “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh.”
The principle of these passages is important to understand. Israel was (and the church is) a holy nation unto Jehovah, her God. Therefore, she is to abstain from the abominable practices of the heathen nations around her. The pagan Canaanites had death cults, that is, they performed various rituals when a person died. Notice that in the passages quoted above the reference is mainly, if not exclusively, to cutting and marking the body for the dead. Probably the Canaanites, being without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12), attempted to appease their gods or the spirits of their ancestors by mutilating their bodies. We need only to recall the desperate antics of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel as an illustration of this (1 Kings 18:28). How unfitting for God’s people! Jehovah graciously gives his people eternal life, and they have the hope of the resurrection. Therefore, such despairing cultic practices were not and could not be part of Jehovah’s worship. As Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, at a Christian funeral we “sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” It is a testimony to the hopelessness of our society, especially as people face death, that tattooing and body piercings are so common.
Generally speaking, the entire Old Testament Law of Moses was designed to serve and illustrate the antithesis. Remember that the antithesis is the principle of spiritual separation from the ungodly world. Jehovah insisted that his people should be devoted to him. That devotion was seen in this: they were separate from the wicked nations around them. But Israel was a little child (see Gal. 4:1ff.) who needed to be instructed by means of pictures. Consider these simple examples. Why should it be forbidden in the Old Testament to mingle fabrics, when today we have liberty to wear a cotton and polyester shirt? Why could there be no crossbreeding in the Old Testament? And why were certain foods designated “unclean” in the Old Testament (see Lev. 19:19 and Deut. 22:9–11)? These were pictures or vivid illustrations of the spiritual principle of separation. In the New Testament, the pictures fall away, but the spiritual principle remains. We still must be spiritually separate from the heathen.
That means, with respect to tattoos and body piercings, that we avoid the practices of the heathen today. We all know that unbelievers tattoo their bodies and get their bodies pierced, not for the glory of God, but as an act of rebellion. They rebel against their parents, or against “polite society.” They do it for the “shock factor,” in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reason that punks dress the way they do with colored hair, Mohawks, and the like. Christians are not rebels. When our loved ones die, we do not cut ourselves in inconsolable grief, and we do not attempt to contact the dead. We rejoice in Christ’s victory over death and in the hope of the future resurrection. If a believer wants to use a tattoo as an excuse to “witness” (“a Bible verse, cross, or something that reflects their faith”), I find that argument unconvincing, even disingenuous. A tattoo is usually on a body part hidden under clothing. If someone is so keen on witnessing (and not just using “witnessing” as an excuse to get a tattoo), he should wear a T-shirt with a Bible verse on it, or, even better, speak a word of witness. We witness by speaking to others about Christ, and supporting that with a godly life, not by getting tattoos and body piercings.
The reader mentions other possible arguments. I would not use them for the following reasons.
First, the one passage in which our body (in distinction from the church) is called the temple of the Holy Spirit is 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, and there the immediate reference is to fornication. It is doubtful whether a legitimate application can be made to activities such as tattooing and body piercings. For example, some who might argue against tattoos on the basis of 1 Corinthians 6 have no issue with smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and overconsumption of certain foods, all of which are more harmful to the body than tattoos. I am not arguing for or against smoking, bodily exercise or eating certain kinds of healthy/unhealthy diets. My point is that Paul forbids fornication because it is a sin that defiles the body, not because it is unhealthy/harmful for the body as such. The body of even the healthiest and most health conscious Christian will eventually decay and die, so while we respect our bodies, we do not worship them.
Second, the mark of the beast in Revelation 13 is almost certainly not something physical. A future government, I dare say, will not print 666 tattoos on its citizens’ hands and foreheads. The mark of the beast is a satanic counterfeit of the seal of God, of which we read in Revelation 7:2–3, 8:4, 14:1 and 22:4. Just as God’s servants do not have a visible tattoo of God’s name on their physical foreheads, so the servants of the beast will not receive a visible tattoo on their hands and foreheads. The mark, which is the number of man, is simply indicative of their allegiance or devotion to the antichristian leader. It has, therefore, nothing to do with tattoos.
So while it might not be possible to argue from scripture for an absolute prohibition of tattoos, it not wise, and it is not Christian behavior to mutilate the flesh. The general principle of the law is against it. In addition, people who foolishly received a tattoo in their youth are stuck with it for the rest of their lives. Tattoos are not easily removed, as our reader points out. Remember Paul’s great principle, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Cor. 6:12). When a person’s motivation to get a tattoo or body piercing is examined in the light of scriptural principles, it is found wanting. I cannot imagine why any Christian today would even consider it.