Is there a relation between the ritual tattoos of ancient times and the "body art" of today? What biblical principles apply to deciding whether to get a tattoo or not?
Tattooing has been around for centuries and this practice has enjoyed a popular resurgence, especially among young people, in recent years. The reasons vary. Some get tattoos to show independence and rejection of parental values. Others get them because of peer pressure or because they believe they are stylish—a type of body adornment and beautification.
As for God's instruction regarding tattoos, the Bible does not specifically address the modern practice of tattooing as body adornment. While Leviticus 19:28 says, "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord," most scholars believe these practices were related to mourning for the dead. Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary's article on tattoos says, "Any kind of self-laceration or marking of the body was prohibited among the Hebrew people. Such cuttings were associated with pagan cults that tattooed their followers while they mourned the dead" (1986).
Apparently, these people cut themselves and disfigured their bodies as a way of appeasing the anger of their gods and hoping to find some help for the deceased. God did not want His people getting involved in these pagan rituals because these practices led people away from Him. While death is always a sad time, God's people are not to "sorrow as others who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
While it is unlikely that people today get tattoos to mourn the dead, there are other biblical principles that indicate that getting a tattoo is inappropriate for Christians.
Several scriptures instruct Christians to take special care of their bodies. For example, 1 Corinthians 3:17 says, "If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are." Also, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 adds that our bodies belong to God, and that we are to glorify Him in body and spirit.
Unfortunately, dangerous diseases have been transmitted by improper sanitation of the needles used in tattooing. An article in the USA Weekend magazine of Aug. 5, 2001, quotes a study by the University of Texas showing that those who have been tattooed are nine times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C, a dangerous virus. The study urged those who have been tattooed in the last 10 years to be checked for the disease because it is often dormant for years before being detected. The dyes used in the tattooing process may also be detrimental to one's health (Andrew Osborn, "Health Risks Warning on Body Art Dyes," The Guardian, July 18, 2003).
King Solomon provides an additional lesson to be considered before making an important decision, saying, "The end of a thing is better than its beginning" (Ecclesiastes 7:8). In other words, consider how you will feel about the decision years later.
For people who get tattoos when they are young, many later regret their decision. It is "estimated that between 17-50% eventually regret having their body tattoo" (www.tattooremovalinstitute.com/index.html ). Many of these people eventually undergo operations to have their tattoos removed, but these procedures are not always successful. Scarring and skin variations commonly remain.
Finally, we should bear in mind that God wants Christians to come out of and be separate from the world around us (2 Corinthians 6:17; Revelation 18:4). We are to reflect God's values and His thinking. Because of these reasons, we strongly advise that people do not get tattoos. If a person already has a tattoo before becoming a Christian, he or she is not required to have it removed.