How could Jonah survive three days in the belly of a “whale”?

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This is one of the Bible stories most ridiculed by people who consider themselves sophisticated and intellectual. Skeptics say that no whale could swallow a man in the first place, and, even if he did, the man would certainly never survive three days and three nights in his belly, as the Bible claims.

“Christian liberals” have attempted to avoid this problem by saying that the story of Jonah was only an allegory and was never meant to be understood as actual history. However, whenever the Bible writers used allegories or parables or other symbolic stories, they always either said so or else made it evident in the context. The book of Jonah is certainly written as though it were actual history. Jonah was a real prophet who is mentioned also in II Kings 14:25. None of the ancient Jews or early Christians ever doubted the authenticity and historicity of the book of Jonah and its story.

Jesus Christ’s confirmation

Most importantly, the Lord Jesus Christ accepted the account as true. He said that the people of Nineveh repented of their sins as a consequence of his preaching (Matthew 12:41). He even said:

“For as Jonah 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.” —Matthew 12:40

Thus Christ actually compared Jonah’s experience to His own coming death and resurrection, pointing out the miraculous nature of both. One cannot deny the factuality of Jonah’s experience, therefore, without charging the Lord Jesus Christ with either deception or ignorance, either of which is equivalent to denying His deity.

A miracle

There is little question that the event was a miracle, but this fact certainly does not disprove it! The account, in fact, says as much:

Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. —Jonah 1:17 KJV

Later it says:

And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land. —Jonah 2:10 KJV

God was certainly able to accomplish this if He wished; to deny the possibility of miracles is Atheism. The actual occurrence of this particular miracle is adequately attested by the very fact of its record in the Holy Scriptures, and is doubly confirmed by the testimony of Christ.

Whole animals as large or larger than a man have been found in the stomachs of the sperm whale and the white shark.

What Was the “Great Fish”?

The “great fish” may have been either a whale or a shark or even a fish specially prepared by the Lord for this purpose. The Hebrew and Greek words that are used merely mean “a great aquatic animal.”

How did Jonah survive?

As to whether a man could survive “three days and three nights” under such conditions, there are three possible answers that could be suggested in defense of the Biblical narrative.

  1. NATURAL. In the first place, it has been well established that the phrase “three days and three nights” in ancient Hebrew usage was an idiomatic expression meaning simply “three days,” and was applicable even if the beginning and ending days of the period were only partial days. Thus it could refer to a period as short as about 38 hours. There is always some air in the whale’s stomach, and, as long as the animal it has swallowed is still alive, digestive activity will not begin. Thus, Jonah’s experience could possibly have happened entirely with the framework of natural law.

  2. MIRACLE. It is much more likely, however, that the event involved a divine miracle, as the Scripture strongly implies. The “great fish” was prepared and sent by God, as was the intense storm that threatened the ship on which Jonah was traveling. The storm ceased as soon as Jonah was cast overboard (Jonah 1:4, 15). In like manner, it was quite probable that God preserved Jonah’s life miraculously all through the horrifying experience.

  3. RESURRECTION. A third possibility is that Jonah actually suffocated and died in the great fish and then God later brought him back from the dead. There are at least eight other such “resurrections” recorded in the Bible, as well as the glorious bodily resurrection of Christ—of which Jonah’s experience in particular was said by Christ to be a prophetic sign.

This is also implied by Jonah’s prayer, when he said:

“…out of the belly of hell (i.e. “sheol,” the place of departed spirits) cried I, and thou heardest my voice” (Jonah 2:2).

In any case, it was a mighty experience, evidently well known and certified in his day, probably contributing in significant degree to the fact that all people of Ninevah repented and turned to God (Jonah 3:5) when Jonah returned “from the dead,” as it were, to preach to them.

Even in Jesus’ day, it was so well known that He could use it as a “sign” of His own impending death and resurrection, which were to constitute God’s crowning proof of the deity of His Son and the great work of salvation which He would accomplish on the cross for all who would receive Him.

“God now commandeth all men everywhere to repent: Because He hath appointed a day, in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead.” —Acts 17:30, 31 (King James Version)

More information

Authors: Henry Morris and Martin Clark , from their book The Bible Has the Answer, pp. 74-76, published by Master Books, 1987. Supplied by Films for Christ with permission from Master Books.

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Article Version: June 5, 2021