Was Jonah Alive or Dead in the Belly of the Whale for Three Days and Three Nights?


There are explanations from both sides on this issue.

Let us examine what Christ said about the sign that He gave in regard to His messiahship.

“But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’” (Matthew 12:39-40).

So just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so Christ would be three days and three nights in the earth (in the tomb or a grave; “hades” in Greek). This was reiterated in Matthew 16:4: “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah…”

Let us look at the account of this event, as it pertains to Jonah:

“Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). Notice, the LORD had prepared the fish and it was big enough to swallow Noah whole.

Then it states that Jonah prayed from the fish’s belly, in Jonah 2:1-9:

“Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish’s belly. And he said: ‘I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, And He answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol [the grave] I cried, And You heard my voice. For You cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the floods surrounded me; All Your billows and Your waves passed over me. Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’ The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; The deep closed around me; Weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; And my prayer went up to You, Into Your holy temple. Those who regard worthless idols Forsake their own Mercy. But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.”

Some have assumed that because he prayed from the fish’s belly, he was alive for the three days and  nights. Is this a compelling conclusion?

Notice what Jonah said in this prayer. He cried out from the belly of Sheol or the grave (compare verse 1), and he said in verse 6: “Yet you have brought my life from the pit.”

This is what Barnes’ Commentary says:

“The deep waters were as a grave, and he was counted ‘among the dead’ [Psalm 88:4]. Death seemed so certain that it was all one as if he were in the womb of hell, not to be reborn to life until the last Day. So David said [in Psalm 18:5:] ‘The bands of death compassed me round about’; and [in Psalm 30:3:] ‘Thou hast drawn my life out of hell.’ The waters choked his speech; but he cried with a loud cry to God Who knew the heart. ‘I cried; Thou heardest.’ The words vary only by a kindred letter. The real heart’s cry to God according to the mind of God and His hearing are one, whether, for man’s good, He seems at the time to hear or [not].

“Not of the voice but of the heart is God the Hearer, as He is the Seer. Do the ears of God wait for sound? How then could the prayer of Jonah from the inmost belly of the whale, through the bowels of so great a creature, out of the very bottomless depths, through so great a mass of waters, make its way to heaven? Loud crying to God is not with the voice but with the heart. Many, silent with their lips, have cried aloud with their heart; many, noisy with their lips, could, with heart turned away, obtain nothing. ‘If then thou criest, cry within, where God heareth.’ Jonah cried aloud to God out of the fish’s belly, out of the deep of the sea, out of the depths of disobedience; and his prayer reached to God, Who rescued him from the waves, brought him forth out of the vast creature, absolved him from the guilt. Let the sinner too cry aloud, whom, departing from God, the storm of desires overwhelmed, the malignant Enemy devoured, the waves of this present world sucked under! Let him own that he is in the depth, that so his prayer may reach to God.”

Notice what Clarke’s Commentary says:

“The text, and the use made of it by Christ, most plainly teach us that the prophet was literally swallowed by a fish, by the order of God; and that by the Divine power he was preserved alive, for what is called three days and three nights, in the stomach of the fish; and at the conclusion of the above time that same fish was led by the unseen power of God to the shore, and there compelled to eject the prey that he could neither kill nor digest. And how easy is all this to the almighty power of the Author and Sustainer of life, who has a sovereign, omnipresent, and energetic sway in the heavens and in the earth.

“But foolish man will affect to be wise; though, in such cases, he appears as the recently born, stupid offspring of the wild ass. It is bad to follow fancy, where there is so much at stake. Both ancients and moderns have grievously trifled with this prophet’s narrative; merely because they could not rationally account for the thing, and were unwilling (and why?) to allow any miraculous interference.”

So the belief by some is that Jonah was alive for three days and three nights, but is this compelling in relationship to what happened to Christ?

We need to emphasize that Christ was dead in the grave for three days and three nights. During that time, He had no consciousness. He was in a dark tomb [he also called it “a pit”] with the temperature cool enough so that He did not decay during the three days and three nights. After the three days and three nights, He was resurrected from the dead as a glorified God being.

If Jonah was alive for the whole time, then the significance of the parallel between Jonah’s fate and Christ’s sign would be lost to an extent. Christ said that AS Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, SO Christ would be three days and three nights in the tomb. It appears that the sign was not only in regard to the three days and three nights, but also in regard to the condition of both Jonah and Christ. As Christ would be dead in the grave—the heart of the earth–, SO was Jonah dead in the watery grave or pit of the fish’s belly.

It appears therefore much more likely that Jonah was dead in the belly of the sea monster, but just before losing consciousness, he said his prayer, as it was later recorded in the second chapter of the book of Jonah. It is a remarkable prayer, as it expresses the confidence that he would live again and bring God sacrifices and fulfill his vows (verse 9). He was in a dark place, as Christ was in the tomb, and after three days and three nights, Jonah was resurrected to physical life, as Christ was resurrected to immortal life.

Lead Writers: Rene Messier (Canada) and Norbert Link

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