[Islamic televangelist] Zakir Naik points out that Jonah was still alive when he was in the belly of the fish. But [we say] Jesus was dead and resurrected after three days. So his conclusion is that Jesus lies, because he was actually dead, whereas Jonah was alive. Could you help me to have a right knowledge, please? Thank you -- A. T. W. (Jakarta, Indonesia)
Christians believe that the sign of Jonah [Matt 12:39] is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Yet Jonah in the fish is only an analogy. In logic, analogies never prove; they only illustrate. What is being illustrated? The Resurrection. But by zeroing in on details in the Jonah story, Zakir Naik is misunderstanding the nature of analogy and the function of illustration, perhaps because Muslims generally deny the death of Christ, and always deny his resurrection. The O.T. event doesn't have to be an exact parallel in order for it to be prophetically significant.
Jonah, expecting to die, was figuratively "entombed" in the belly of the fish, and figuratively rose from the dead, returning to the land of the living. Those who fail to heed Jesus' words during his earthly ministry (like many Pharisees -- see the context of Matt 12) may be convinced once he has risen from the dead.
And yet the parallel is only approximate.
For example, by the third day Jonah probably stank of fish. But did Jesus stink when he came out from the grave? Apparently not — he had a transformed resurrection body. The fish belly was the place where Jonah contemplated and repented. But Jesus didn’t sin, so he didn’t need to repent. Jesus preached to the spirits in Hades during the time his body was in the grave, but Jonah preached only after coming out of the grave.
So, we see, it is not a perfect parallel, nor was Jesus claiming it was. The point is simple. The event prefigures the Resurrection, and the first Christians (who, remember, were Jews) found the parallel illuminating.