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What is the "Sign of Jonah"? Did Jonah Die in the Belly of the Whale, Resurrect, and have a Near-Death Experience? NDEs of the Bible

Jonah was swallowed into the belly of a whale, right? He was spit onto the shore after three days, but he was alive the whole time. 

Wasn’t he? … Wasn’t he?

Actually, no.

But this helps explain Jesus' mysterious prophecy about the “Sign of Jonah” ...



Do you remember Jesus’ mysterious prophecy about the “Sign of Jonah”? Here is Luke 11:29–32 (also Matthew 12:38-42): 

When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nin′eveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation. The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nin′eveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

“Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh.” Check. “So will the Son of man be to this generation.” Check? Jesus is the Son of man, but Jesus is never swallowed by a whale (or a great fish). How, then, does Jesus provide the sign of Jonah?  

What does Jesus Mean by the "Sign of Jonah"?

This is a confusing passage. When you first read it, it may seem like Jesus is being flippant or evasive and not providing relevant information. However, there are no empty phrases in Scripture. So what is the deeper meaning of the sign of Jonah?



Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days. Jesus was in the belly of the earth for three days. Is three days the sign of Jonah? This is getting us closer, but there’s still more.

Let’s look at the text of the Book of Jonah. Here is Jonah’s prayer to the Lord, his cry for help:[1]

I called out of my distress to the Lord, And He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice. You had cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me. So I said, “I have been expelled from Your sight. Nevertheless, I will look again toward Your holy temple.” Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, weeds were wrapped around my head. I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, And my prayer came to You, Into Your holy temple. Those who regard vain idols Forsake their faithfulness, But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the Lord.

Notice that Jonah is crying for help from the “depth of Sheol,” not from the depths of the ocean or even the depths of fish. Jonah is crying to God from Sheol, which is the abode of the dead. The dead.

Was Jonah in the Belly of a Whale? Or Did Jonah Die?

Jonah also says “you have brought up my life from the pit.” The “pit” is another Old Testament term for the realm of the dead.[2]

Jonah sinks down below the “weeds,” the “roots of the mountains,” and is “engulfed” by the great deep. Jonah’s soul is descending to the bottom of the ocean, but deeper. He sinks below the depths of the oceans, deep into the earth, way past the belly of any fish or whale.

Was Jonah Really in the Belly of a Whale



Also, the trip to the underworld land of the dead was generally believed in the Near East to be a journey of three days.[3]

Simply put, Jonah died. Jonah was dead.

How Long Was Jonah Dead For? The "Sign of Jonah" & Three Days 

Not only that, Jonah was dead for three days. Being dead for three days, then rising from the dead—that is the sign of Jonah. Christ provides the sign of Jonah by being really, truly dead for three days, then resurrecting.

Jonah and the Whale

Is the Sign of Jonah Resurrection After Three Days? 

So what is the Sign of Jonah?

Jesus is directly telling the crowds about His upcoming death and Resurrection. But Jesus is not going to rise like Jonah. Jesus says “something greater than Jonah is here.” Jesus is greater than Jonah. God resurrected Jonah, but Jesus is God. Jesus will resurrect Himself.

Also, look at the command word God uses when He speaks to Jonah’s lifeless body, Jonah’s corpse, which the fish vomits unceremoniously onto the seashore.

God says to Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

Does this word choice and phrasing sound familiar? “Arise” is the Hebrew word qum or קוּם



This is the same word Jesus uses when He raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead.[4] According to Mark 5:41, Jesus “[takes] her by the hand, He said to her, ‘Talitha cumi,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’”

Jesus uses this same command word as God, Himself, uses. God commands Jonah to “arise,” and Jesus commands the girl to “arise.” 

Jonah’s Near-Death Experience

Wait a second. Jonah died. Jonah went to Sheol, to the pit. God restored Jonah to life. Jonah also provided us with an account of his experience. Check, check, check! 

Jonah had a near-death experience. And Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:2–9, quoted above) is the account of his NDE. Jonah’s effect on Nineveh, following his NDE, is also significant. Let’s now analyze Jonah’s account as a near-death experience.



Here again is Jonah’s prayer to God as he descends into the “depth of Sheol”:[5]

I called out of my distress to the Lord, And He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice. You had cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me.

As alluded to earlier, the location of Jonah’s near-death experience is not Heaven or hell, but Sheol. This makes Jonah’s NDE unique among all those that describe visits to Heaven.

What is Sheol?

“Sheol” is the Hebrew term for the underworld.[6] In the Septuagint, the Hebrew term שְׁאוֹל (she'ol) was translated as the Greek term δης (hadēs), which referred to both the netherworld and the Greek god of the netherworld.[7] Apart from Jonah’s account, descriptions of Sheol are sparse, but it’s generally described as “a somnolent, gloomy existence without meaningful activity or social distinction.”[8]

Sheol is the equivalent of purgatory, or at least its precursor. All the Biblical texts referring to Purgatory serve as proof-texts for the Catholic belief in Purgatory. There are a bunch more, all of which I have tried to assemble in this article, Biblical Proofs for Purgatory:

 


Sheol is a place of waiting, a place that ultimately leads to Heaven.

So I said, “I have been expelled from Your sight. Nevertheless, I will look again toward Your holy temple."[9]

Jonah describes being exiled or “expelled” from God’s presence. He is beyond the sight of God. Nevertheless, he remains faithful to God. He does not give in to despair. Jonah keeps his eyes fixed on Heaven. He yearns for God’s holy temple in Heaven.


The Holy Souls of Purgatory Yearning for Heaven, St. Margaret Mary & St. Faustina Kowalska

This accurately describes the disposition of the souls in purgatory, as well as Sheol. St. Margaret Mary was often beset by souls from purgatory seeking relief from their torments. St. Margaret Mary said of these suffering souls:

If only you knew with what great longing these holy souls yearn for relief from their suffering. Ingratitude has never entered Heaven.

St. Faustina Kowalska provided a similar observation of the souls in purgatory, tantamount to a near-death experience. 

Jonah and the Whale Near-Death Experience


St. Faustina was taken to “a misty place full of fire” by her guardian angel:[10]

I saw my guardian angel, who ordered me to follow him. In a moment I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently, but to no avail, for themselves; only we can come to their aid. The flames, which were burning them, did not touch me at all. My guardian angel did not leave me for an instant. I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God.

St. Faustina reveals here that the greatest torment of the souls in purgatory is not burning in the flames, but their “longing for God.”


Sheol, Like a Prison

Let’s return to Jonah’s prayer to God as he descends to the underworld. As you read, you may begin to feel claustrophobic. Jonah is calling to God from a place like a prison:[11]

Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me, weeds were wrapped around my head. I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever ...

The water “encompassed” Jonah. The deep “engulfed” him. Weeds encircled his body and “wrapped around his head,” choking him. Finally, the “bars” of the earth closed in on him “forever.”

Jonah and the Whale by Dan Phyillaier


Jonah's NDE, A Life Forever Changed

Another consistent characteristic of NDEs is the positive change it causes in the survivor’s life. This was consistently documented in the medical studies reviewed earlier.

After Jonah’s descent into the prison of the depths, he suddenly demonstrates the gratitude that St. Margaret Mary described above, as well as the longing and yearning for the sanctuary of God’s holy temple:[12] 

But You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, And my prayer came to You, Into Your holy temple. Those who regard vain idols forsake their faithfulness, but I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the Lord.

Jonah ends his prayer in the “voice of thanksgiving.” He will repay God’s faithfulness to him with his own faithfulness.

 

 



What is the "Sign of Jonah"? Did Jonah have a Near-Death Experience? Footnotes

[1] Jon. 2:2–9.

[2] Pitre, Brant, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, Image Books, New York, Chapter 12: “The Resurrection,” 150-152: The phrases belly of Sheol and the Pit are Old Testament terms that refer to the realm of the dead. (See Job 7:9, 33:18, Psalm 40:2, 49:14-15, 89:48).

[3] See Robert Chisholm, Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 411: “In ancient Near Eastern literature, the trip to the underworld land of the dead was viewed as a three-day journey.” See also George M. Landes, “The ‘Three Days and Three Nights’ Motif in Jonah 2:1,” Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (1967): 246-50.

[4] Jesus uses the same command to raise from the dead the Widow of Nain’s Son at Luke 7:14–15: “And he came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother.”

[5] Jon. 2:2–9.

[6] Johnston, Shades of Sheol, 74–75.

[7] Martin A. Shields, “Death,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[8] Ibid., Johnston.

[9] Jon. 2:4.

[10] St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 20.

[11] Jon 2:5.

[12] Jon. 2:6–9.

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