Skeptics ridicule many portions of Scripture and let's face it—some of them are difficult to believe. Certainly one that has received a major dose of such ridicule deals with Jonah and the whale (or great fish). How could a whale or fish swallow a man whole? How could a man survive in such an environment for any length of time? As always, there are answers to the questions if we are willing to study and believe.
First, let me say that the historicity of this account is vital to the Christian. Believing it is not an option, for Jesus Christ Himself believed it and made it a model for the doctrine of His resurrection. "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).
What kind of animal swallowed Jonah? In the passage above, the Greek word translated "whale" actually means a huge fish or sea monster. In the passage in Jonah (1:17; 2:1,10), the Hebrew word was the normal word for "fish," but here the word is modified by the word great. Our modern taxonomic system places whales among the mammals, sharks, among the fish and plesiosaurs among the reptiles, but, the Bible uses a different system. "All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men,another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds." (I Corinthians 15:39).
Evidently any living thing other than the creeping things (Psalm 104:25) in the seas is placed in the category of "fishes". In addition, there are several species of whale and of sharks alive today with gullets large enough to swallow a man whole. Among extinct animals like the plesiosaurs, the same could be said, and perhaps this was a heretofore unknown fish of large size. The point is, the story is not impossible. However, most importantly, the Bible says that "the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah" (Jonah 1:17). Clearly this event was miraculous and not a naturalistic phenomenon. Thus we don’t have to give it an explanation limited by modern experience or knowledge.
Could a man survive in a fish’s belly? The Hebrew idiom "three days and three nights" has been clearly shown both from Scripture and other sources to mean a period of time beginning on one day and ending on the day after the one following. It doesn't necessarily mean three full days and nights.
Furthermore, there have been several reported cases of modern sailors or other individuals swallowed by such an animal, only to be recovered many hours later.
But again, this story involves the miraculous. It may be that Jonah actually died and was resurrected by God. This is implied in his description of his experience especially Jonah 2:2. Of course, resurrection is "impossible" but it clearly happened on several occasions in Scripture requiring miraculous input. To deny the possibility of miracles, especially those miracles specifically mentioned in Scripture, is to deny the existence of God, and this is not an option for a Christian.
The point is nothing about the story is totally impossible: There are "fish" large enough to swallow a man; men have been known to survive inside a "fish"; the Bible says it really happened; Christ said Jonah’s experience was an analogy of His own death and resurrection; and God is alive and capable of this feat.
*Dr. John Morris is the President of ICR.