Was Jonah alive in the belly of the huge fish?
Sheikh Ahmad Deedat, an Islamic commentator famous for his controversial teachings and attacks on Christianity, wrote a booklet to defy and rebut the basic Christian doctrine of Jesus' resurrection. Walking in the footsteps of some anti-Christian writers that propagated the Swoon Theory* and of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya**, tried to deny the veracity of Christ's resurrection by focusing on the parallelism drawn by Jesus Himself between Jonah and the Son of Man in the following verses:An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. (Matthew 12:39-40)
Deedat concluded that this analogy proved his teachings concerning Jesus' resurrection. Since Jonah was alive
in the belly of the huge fish, so was Jesus in the grave. Jesus, who had previously fallen into a swoon in the cross, came to Himself and walked out of His grave after His burial. Thus, there was no resurrection since there was no death in the first place.
Of course, some Christian apologists raced to respond to and refute Deedat's allegations by underlining the fact that the parallelism drawn by Jesus between Jonah and the Son of Man was confined to the period of time both characters spent in a place. The belly of the fish (Jonah) vs the heart of the earth (Jesus) actually stressed the veracity of Jesus' death rather than His fainting, for grave and burial are crucially associated with death and dead people.
This is definitely a nice and valid argument that rebuts Deedat's heresy, but when I pondered on this issue and read the Book of Jonah carefully, I reached the conclusion that even in the Old Testament Jonah's remaining in the belly of the fish symbolically represented his death. Jonah was isolated from the land of the living and cast into dark waters. His prayer is also amazingly similar in tone and content to the Psalms that employ the theme of death. Consequently, in my rebuttal to Thomas Paine's attacks on Christianity with regard to the resurrection narrative in the Gospel of Matthew I wrote the following:Evidently, during His prophetic ministry Christ had foretold His death and resurrection in public through drawing an analogy between Prophet Jonah and the Son of Man (Himself). As Jonah had stayed in the belly of the huge fish for only three days, the Son of Man would stay in the heart of the earth for only three days and not more. Jonah’s staying in the belly of the huge fish had represented his death as he had been isolated from the world of the living and cast into a dark world in deep waters. Accordingly, his coming out from that dark place back to the world of the living symbolized his resurrection. Jonah’s symbolic death and resurrection had functioned as the predictor of Jesus’ actual death and resurrection, for the fulfillment of predictions means the changing of symbols and typologies into realities. In short, Jesus had revealed His future death and resurrection along with the time of His coming back to life. Since the Jewish authorities were not a bunch of idiots, they understood what Jesus meant, which later instigated them to take precautions against Jesus’ predicted resurrection on the third day.
More, I was suprised to read in the Jewish encyclopedia yesterday that Rabbinical Literature taught that Jonah died when he was cast into the sea:In the Zohar (Wayaḳhel) it is related that the fish died as soon as Jonah entered, but was revived after three days. When Jonah was thrown into the sea his soul immediately left his body and soared up to God's throne, where it was judged and sent back. As soon as it touched the mouth of the fish on its way back to the body, the fish died, but was later restored to life. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=388&letter=J&search=jonah
In this non-biblical story, Jonah is depicted as a person who died and then came back to life in the belly of the fish. This interesting depiction may have been derived from the misinterpretation of Jonah's symbolic death.
What do you think? Was Jonah alive or dead in the belly of the huge fish? Did his spending three days in the dark waters represent his death and transfer to Hades? What did the Church Fathers say on this issue?
* The assertion that Jesus did not rise from the dead because He had not actually died, but fallen into a swoon due to hunger and pain.
**A formerly Islamic sect established by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed to be the promised Messiah that was to return to this world. He taught that Jesus was crucified, but did not die. He was alive when laid in a tomb by His disciples. After becoming conscious again, He left the tomb and appeared to His disciples. He finally left Israel and took refuge in Kashmir, where Mirza Ahmad would be born many centuries later as the promised Messiah. The followers of the Ahmadiyya are considered heretics by the majority of the Muslims and not allowed to enter the Holy Land of Islam (Mecca-Cube) for the ritual of pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of their faith. Recently they have been assailed and lynched by radical Muslims in Indonesia. (Such a tragic end for these lost sheep).