Of Fish and Tombs
Among critics of the Bible there are few stories discussed more often than that of Jonah and the great fish (Jonah 1:17). This account has been ridiculed perhaps as frequently as any in the Bible. It is too difficult, critics allege, to believe that a man could be swallowed by such a fish, and then emerge alive and well three days later. In reality, however, the problem with this account is not the fact that a fish could swallow a man. While in the past it was suggested that no fish had a gullet large enough to allow it to swallow a man, today scientists acknowledge that the sperm whale, which inhabits the Mediterranean Sea, is capable of swallowing an object as large as, or larger than, a man (see Scheffer, 1969, pp. 82-87). The whale shark and other great marine animals can do like wise. Nor is the problem a dispute over whether a man could live for approximately 72 hours inside such an animal. Accounts of that actually happening have been documented (see Rimmer, 1936, pp. 188-189).
Even though fish exist with a gullet large enough to swallow a man, and even though it has been documented that a man can live three days inside such a fish, these matters actually are beside the point. Why so? They are irrelevant because the text acknowledges that God’s miraculous powers were at work in the life of Jonah. Jonah 1:17 specifically states that God “prepared a great fish” to swallow Jonah. Jonah 2:10 notes that God “spake unto the fish and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” The critics’ ridicule is directed at the account of Jonah because it is miraculous, not because of the size of a fish’s gullet or the life span of a man inside a fish. What we are dealing with here is a clear-cut case of antisupernatural bias.
The real question is this: Is supernaturalism credible? If God exists, then miracles are possible. If there was a creation by God, then supernaturalism is credible, because God could choose to intervene in His creation at any time. If Christ was raised from the dead, then supernaturalism not only is possible, but proven. Ultimately, then, the rejection of supernaturalism is the rejection of Christ. This may mean little to the hardened atheist, or to the religious modernist who attacks the account in Jonah as nothing more than a myth and who long ago gave up any real belief in the deity of Christ. But what should be the Christian’s response?
First, let us note that the account in Jonah is presented as authentic history, detailing the conversion of multitudes of people in a real city—the great Assyrian city of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5). Jonah is discussed as a real prophet in 2 Kings 14:25. The entire record of Jonah was accepted by ancient Jewish historians and commentators—all of whom were much closer geographically and chronologically than modern-day atheists or liberals. Second, the most compelling reason for accepting the record of Jonah is that it was accepted by Christ Himself. Notice that in Luke 11:32 Christ commented on the fact that “the men of Nineveh...repented at the preaching of Jonah.” With respect to the miracle of the great fish, Jesus said: “For as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). Thus, the Lord Himself appropriated Jonah’s miraculous preservation and restoration as a type and prophecy of His own death, burial, and resurrection.
This leaves the Christian with three options. (1) Jesus was mistaken, and simply unaware of His error in regard to Jonah. Jonah really did not spend three days in the belly of a great fish, even though Christ said that he did. (2) Jesus lied about the matter. He knew that the events recorded never took place, but He still employed the account “as if ” it actually had taken place, in order to effect a comparison with His own situation. (3) Jesus told the truth regarding the matter; the events recorded in the book of Jonah really did occur, and as such, were used appropriately by the Lord in reference to His own impending death and the circumstances surrounding it.
Jonah and Jesus stand or fall together. One may not repudiate the account of Jonah, as if it were some kind of unimportant fairy tale, and then advocate the truthfulness of the deity of Christ at the same time. Jesus’ testimony was that the events surrounding Jonah in his day and time were as literal, and as historical, as the events of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection would be in His. The evidence that attends the latter attests to the fact of the former.
Were it not for the antagonism of atheism, and the compromise of religious modernism, the story of Jonah would be accepted at face value, just as Jesus accepted it. Those of us who respect Christ and His testimony will acknowledge, and defend, what Christ acknowledged and defended. To do anything less impugns the deity of our Lord, and that is something we must not take lightly.
Rimmer, Harry (1936), The Harmony of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), pp. 188-189.
Scheffer, Victor B. (1969), The Year of the Whale (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), pp. 82-87.