A personal note from the author:
Many of the most dedicated, loving, and holy Christians I have ever known have tattoos. I have been privileged to be a part of the life of many different kinds of Christians with different theological perspectives and different “looks.” They are my brothers and sisters. What follows is an exploration in the application of theology. It’s not my intention to condemn, but to give a little more thought to something we don’t think much about.
Why I like Deuteronomy 23:1
“No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 23:1
A student at my Christian High School wrote this reference on my board last week. Suspecting less than pious motives, I knew I had to look it up. After reading it, he told me it was even more vivid in the New Living Translation; I’ll take his word for it. I love the humor that can come from taking verses out of context as much as anyone, but I felt compelled to defend the text.
I’m thankful for verses like this. At the very least, it says two important things about God. First, like all of the law, it speaks both to His holiness and His desire for ours. By holiness, I am meaning both righteousness and otherness. God is not only good, He is set apart. His people are called to be the same. Secondly, it makes it clear that the mutilation of the flesh is not a path to God. In an ancient world where devotion was expressed through cutting, emasculation, prostitution, and child sacrifice; this passage says “No thank you.” I’m thankful to Deuteronomy 23:1 because I’m glad that my parents and mentors never considered emasculation as a valid option for me.
Maybe there is still more to the verse. Scholars disagree on the meaning of “the assembly (or congregation) of the Lord.” Regardless if it involves citizenship among the people of Israel, a role in worship, or a position of religious leadership, entering the assembly of the Lord is indeed a privilege. By being in the assembly one is identifying with the God of Heaven and with His people. While I am not sure of its exact meaning under the Mosaic covenant, being a part of the assembly of the Lord is certainly our privilege under the New Covenant. It will be our great joy in the New Creation.
Lessons from Inaugurated Eschatology
It is to the New Creation that we now turn. When Christ returns, he will bring down New Jerusalem and God will make his dwelling place with man (Rev 21). All will be righted. This is where the concepts of inaugurated eschatology come in. The Bible teaches that God began this work of New Creation in the person of Jesus. God’s future was inaugurated in our past. Christ’s entire ministry was one of kingdom bringing. And he brought it! This is why the blind saw when they encountered him, why the lame walked when he touched them, and why the dead rose when he called them. They were encountering the king of the New Jerusalem. This is why when faced with the death of a friend he called himself, “The resurrection and the life” (John 11).
Because the eschaton has already been inaugurated, the future impacts the way we live in the present. In the New Creation, there will be no sin, no selfishness, lying, or hatred. We live in hope of this future by doing away with these evils now. If we are presently called to an eschatological life, it is clear that this current creation is still important to God. We are surrounded by a world that is “charged with the grandeur of God” as Hopkins put it. We are called to be both awestruck by it and to manage it. This ecological mandate is based on God’s commands to Adam and Eve, but is also a way in which we can prepare for our future of enjoying God’s New Creation. Is it possible that what is true of a beautiful landscape could also true of our bodies.
Too many Christians take the gnostic approach of saying this present reality is just an illusion or that our physical body is evil. Arcade Fire makes amazing music, but their theology is pagan. Our body is not a “cage”; it is God’s creation. When Christ returns, the body will not be thrown away, but resurrected. Even now, our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and as such it is where God’s New Creation is currently happening. One day, the Spirit will make all things new, but for now he is making us a “new creation” (II Cor 5:17).
In this perspective, our bodies matter deeply. Just as God desires our present holiness and will accomplish this fully in his New Creation. God desires the present health of our bodies and will accomplish that fully by resurrection. Despite the fall and the curse we are, physically speaking, the artwork of God’s creation. He longs to make our bodies His temple. Our skin is profoundly beautiful because it is a product of the stroke of His brush. While we are not in our original state of perfection, we still have been called “very good” (Gen 1:31). Are we to improve God’s work with a skull and cross bones on the forearm? Or a Jesus fish on the ankle?
Tattoos in light of the Resurrection
I’ve never understood why people get tattoos and I’m surprisingly only 35. Tattoos seem about as common as smart phones to people my age and younger. I don’t want to denounce something just because I don’t understand it, but I must ask why we are so eager to treat our body, God’s artwork, as a blank canvas? Why do we view this fresco as blank? It seems we are not seeing what God sees. I suspect a gnostic antagonism for our bodies is at it again.1 We willingly mark our body because we paradoxically think it’s unimportant. At the same time we feel that there are few things more important than expressing ourselves on our bodies. Maybe we are unwilling to see our body as a beautiful landscape because only Photoshop can provide the kind of beauty we’ve been conditioned to crave.
I believe inaugurated eschatology offers a good response to our cultures obsession with tattoos. A tattoo does nothing to prepare us for the New Creation. Just like poisoning our rivers is no way to prepare for the New Jerusalem, a tramp stamp is no way to anticipate the Resurrection. Just as we have a moral and ecological imperative to save the Redwood Forest from Graffiti artist, we have a sacred obligation to treat our own body with dignity and respect. A “John 3:16” graffiti on a Redwood is just as obscene as any curse. In much the same way, a Greek word or Jesus Fish fails to reflect an eschatologically oriented life.
Tattoos reflect the brokenness of the world we live in. They are marks of our fall. We do well to remember that our race is fallen and our world is under a curse. We do well to recognize how deep this cancer has spread. While we recognize this, we don’t embrace it. Our bodies, however imperfect, are awaiting perfection. Through the power of Christ’s Resurrection, let us orient ourselves to His new life.
As we prepare to enter the eternal Assembly of the Lord, let us remember first his grace. Let us remember that we will be surrounded by the scared, pierced, and inked. We will walk hand in hand with whores and thieves. Not one of us will be able to see himself as better than another. We will all enter through the gate of Christ’s merit. All who enter through this gate will be made clean. All who enter will stand naked before the Lord and be glorified. All the scars carried by our souls and bodies will disappear. So will the ink. Until the day where our anticipation becomes reality, let us live now as citizens of heaven.
As for me, I will not need to wear turtlenecks or long sleeves for a job. I won’t wear a tragic story on my arm that I need to explain to strangers. I will do my best by the power of the Spirit to live an eschatological life both physically and spiritually. I will not deface my body, which is God’s canvas. And above all, I will enter the Assembly of the Lord with my manhood intact.