Those who accept the literal account of Jonah take one of two main views regarding what happened to Jonah during his time in the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2). One view holds that Jonah died and later returned to life. The second view holds that Jonah remained alive for three days in the belly of the great fish. Both views agree on a literal reading of the book of Jonah and affirm God’s supernatural ability to rescue His prophet. The difference is whether to see Jonah 2:10 as a description of a weak and bedraggled Jonah or as a truly resurrected Jonah.
Those who argue that Jonah died and later rose again appeal to Jonah’s prayer in Jonah 2:2: “From the depths of the grave I called for help.” The use of Sheol, the Hebrew term for “the grave,” could mean that Jonah actually died. Yet the words “the depths of the grave,” seen as a poetic turn of phrase, could easily refer to an agonizing or horrifying experience.
There’s another reason that some argue for Jonah’s death and resurrection: Jesus said, “For just 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 12:40). The reasoning is that, since Jesus’ death and resurrection were actual, then Jonah must have also actually died and later returned to life. However, Jesus’ comparison does not mandate perfect congruency between the two events. Jonah’s hopeless situation was illustrative of Jesus’ death; Jonah’s sudden appearance at Nineveh was illustrative of Jesus’ resurrection. The three days was an additional similarity. Jonah returned from the edge of death; Jesus, who is greater than Jonah, returned from actual death. Analogies do not require absolute agreement in every detail.
The Bible does not explicitly state that Jonah died in the belly of the great fish. Those who theorize that he did die rely on inference and speculation. What is the evidence that Jonah stayed alive for the three days he spent in the belly of the great fish?
First, it is clear that Jonah prayed from inside the fish: “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish” (Jonah 2:1). At the very least, Jonah lived long enough to offer his prayer.
Second, the language of Jonah’s prayer is poetic in nature. Terms such as Sheol and the reference to “the pit” (Jonah 2:6) do not have to be interpreted so literally as to require physical death.
Did Jonah die in the fish, or was he alive the whole time? Either interpretation is possible, but the traditional understanding, that Jonah was alive for three days in the belly of a great fish, is more likely. Jonah, who everyone thought was a “goner,” emerged from the murky depths to bring God’s message of salvation to a lost and dying people. In so doing, he became a wonderful representation of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and life-giving message.