I don’t know. This text seems to settle the matter- “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD,” Leviticus 19:28.
The anti-tattoo party is likely to pitch their tent here, perhaps wisely so. The pro-tattoo party, however, will object that this is either a. in the Old Testament and therefore invalid or b. ceremonial law, and therefore invalid.
I have little respect for the first objection as it divides the Word of God. It is true enough that the God we serve has changed His law on occasion. It is also true, however, that He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. If an Old Testament law not being repeated in the New Testament means it is no longer binding then that perversion known as bestiality must be acceptable for the Christian.
What then of the second objection? Is this law merely ceremonial law, that which has been fulfilled in Christ? Would submitting to this law be incipient Judaizing, a going back to the shadows of the Old Covenant? Maybe. The distinctions theologians make about the law of God, dividing the Old Testament civil law (that law imposed on and by the state) from the ceremonial law (that law touching on religious ceremonies and concepts of cleanness and uncleanness) and both from the moral law (that law which simply tells us what we are required to do, such as the first commandment) are valuable and play an important part in sound biblical interpretation. Trouble is, our Bible’s do not come color-coded, wherein God inerrantly reveals to us what law falls into which category.
Scholars argue that this text is tied to certain cultic practices of the surrounding nations. But that doesn’t solve the dilemma. That is, God may have forbidden His people to get tattoos so they would be set apart from their neighbors (making it more a ceremonial law as we are now set apart by Christ). Or He may have forbidden it because there is some kind of inherent connection between marking our bodies and false worship (in which case it would be moral.)
Without a firm answer my counsel has been two-fold. First I would want do as deep and honest as possible an assessment of my own motives. This is rather more serious than a mere, “Am I doing this for the dead? Heck no, since I don’t even know what that means.” We have to ask what, if any subtext comes with a tattoo. Am I trying to look cool, and what does that say about my security in Christ? Am I trying to look rebellious? What does that say about my submission to godly authority?
I am not confident that I could answer these questions with sufficient insight into my own motives, which then brings me to the second part of my counsel. While not at all suggesting that such an argument ought to bind the conscience of another, I would encourage, if asked, a Pascal’s Wager approach to the question. He, you will remember, argued about the Christian faith as a whole, that if you accept the faith, and it turns out to be false, it will cost you little. If, however, you don’t accept the faith and it turns out to be true, you’ll regret your choice eternally. (I understand there are serious problems with Pascal’s Wager, but I note it only to illustrate a similar point.)
How then does this apply? One thing we know about the Bible- it does not require me to get a tattoo. It may forbid me to get one. Given that reality, and my own uncertainty, why would I want to get one?