Question: My friend says he can’t take the Bible seriously because of the Book of Jonah. He feels there is no way possible Jonah could have been swallowed by a whale and, after three days, live. I tell him there’s no way to humanly figure it out—it’s a miracle. Who is right?
Answer: You are both right! Jonah did not live for three days in the "whale’s" belly—he died! And it was a miracle. Two points should be emphasized. (1). The miraculous is obvious from the beginning. "The Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah." (Jonah 1:17). (2). Our Lord explicitly stated in Matthew 12:40 that this was a fact!
"For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Also see Jonah 1:17b.)
What was the miracle that was illustrated by this great incident in the life of Jonah? Jonah’s being swallowed up by the great fish was an example of the Resurrection of Christ, who would be crucified, buried, and raised up on the third day. "For as Jonas...so shall the Son of man be..." Christ did not live in the grave for three days and then emerge. He died as the payment for the sin of all mankind.
The fact that Jonah died is proved by the biblical language.
"Then Jonah prayed to the Lord...out of the fish’s belly." (Jonah 2:1)
"Belly" is the Hebrew word "me-ah" or "abdomen." In Jonah 2:2, Jonah states
"...out of the belly of hell cried I..."
Here "belly" is from the Hebrew word "betan" and means "a hollow place," and "hell" is "sheol." Now Jonah’s body is in the belly of the fish and his soul and spirit is in the hollow place of Sheol. This is the same location as described in Luke 16:19-31 (from the Greek "Hades"); with Paradise on one side and Torment on the other, with a great gulf between and; until after the Resurrection of Christ, was the place where the soul and spirit of those deceased would await their Resurrection. Not "soul sleeping," but the lost and saved were fully conscious, able to feel, see, reason, and speak as evidenced by Luke 16.
When Christ’s body was in the grave for three days and nights, he was in the Paradise side of Sheol/Hades. (Acts 2:27; Psalm 16:10) At Christ’s Ascension, He emptied Paradise (Ephesians 4:8-10), and Paradise is now in the immediate presence of God. We find the Apostle Paul was "caught up to the third heaven...into paradise." (2 Corinthians 12:1-4) During this present church age the saved who die are "absent from the body...present with the Lord." (2 Corinthians 5:8). Torment, with its fully conscious, unbelieving inhabitants, awaits the final judgment of Revelation 20:13.
There are many accounts in the Bible of those who were brought back to life in a physical body like Jonah; but, eventually they died, as did Jonah in his time. It was a temporary thing, as this physical life is. If we believe that Jesus died to pay for our sins, God promises us everlasting life.
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)