Have you ever heard the term “apologetics”? Contrary to its sound, apologetics has nothing to do with apologies. From the Greek word apologia, it means a “verbal defense” and is typically used in the legal sense of building an objective case. It’s found in 1 Peter 3:15 that we looked at last week: “Always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks …” (And, by the way, the word translated “ask” is closer in meaning to “demand.”) So, is it possible to build a credible defense for our faith in the face of potentially hostile questioners armed with well-researched historic, philosophic, or scientific knowledge?
Throughout history, Christian apologists from Thomas Aquinas to C.S. Lewis crafted intellectual arguments to refute the objections that were raised against the Christian faith, and the idea of well-educated believers defending Scripture was not limited to authors and theologians. The Bible was the basis for various groundbreaking discoveries on which many modern scientific laws are based. By trusting in the revealed truth and accuracy of Scripture, men like Thomas Boyle, Sir Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, and Blaise Pascal made major scientific advances by investigating the “whys” behind Biblical statements about wind, air and ocean currents, hygiene, and light.
Sadly, most modern scientists work from exactly the opposite premise, developing complex theories as “proof” against the Biblical narrative and teaching these theories to successive generations as fact—often with little compelling evidence. Apologetics seems to have fallen from favor as we’re increasingly urged to “trust the science” as if the discipline is more reliable than the God who created it.
Consider Job, the oldest book in the Bible, which references the water cycle—i.e. condensation, rain, and evaporation (verses 36:27-28; 26:8)—and states that God hung the earth on nothing (verse 26:7), although many centuries later, ancients still believed that the earth was upheld by various pagan gods or rested on the back of a turtle. Or that Scripture taught it was daytime in part of the world and night in the other (Luke 17:34-35) centuries before science accepted that a rotating earth revolved around the sun?
Scoffers typically attack Biblical accounts they consider vulnerable. I believe the Enemy knows that if he can make us skeptical of any part of the Word, he can make us skeptical of all of it. Sadly, this strategy often works. Rather than standing firm on the total reliability and truth of Scripture, some Christians “spiritualize” difficult to defend passages as allegory, symbolism, or poetic imagery—or worse, insist that the New Testament negates the Old.
Narratives which are difficult to swallow—pardon the pun—like Jonah and the whale, are quickly relegated to the category of moral tales to teach Sunday school children. After all, what thinking person wouldn’t crumble in the face of marine biologists who say there’s no fossil evidence that whales ever lived in the Mediterranean Sea or that whales sift microscopic plankton through their baleen plates which could not possibly accommodate a human body?
A quick internet search reveals several reports of fishermen who were briefly swallowed whole by humpback or sperm whales and survived. Another claimed he’d been swallowed by a whale and rescued thirty-six hours later, blind and with his skin bleached white from stomach acids. These may or may not be fish stories. I prefer an account whose Source I trust.
Jonah 1:17 says “Now the Lord (Yahweh) had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Note first, that the fish is not identified as a whale. Second, God uniquely provided and appointed this fish for a specific purpose. How can we doubt God’s ability to design a fish large enough to swallow Jonah but say we believe He created the universe? How can we doubt that Jonah supernaturally survived there for three days but wholeheartedly accept the miracle that physically raised Lazarus from the tomb?
Unconvinced? Several commentaries suggest Jonah died in the fish (Jonah 2:6-7) and was resurrected later. The logic is sound since Jonah’s clearly an OT type (or foreshadowing) of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and calling to save the lost. Either way, Christians should see nothing in the book of Jonah beyond God’s all-powerful, sovereign ability to accomplish.
For me, the ultimate authority is Jesus. When the Pharisees asked for a sign, He said, “… none will be given … except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:39). Why did Jesus testify of Jonah rather than point to any of the other miraculous signs He could have referenced? I believe He chose this seemingly fantastic tale to confirm its veracity, knowing future skeptics would use it to question the truth and accuracy of Scripture.
If you’re still wrestling with a literal interpretation of Jonah, that’s okay. After all, it’s hardly a salvation issue. But consider that according to recent polls, 70% of church-going teenagers leave the faith by their sophomore year of college citing “intellectual skepticism” and “unanswered questions.” I think we need to dust off the study of apologetics and provide teens with better answers than a Sunday school understanding gleaned from felt boards.
Let’s be ready when opportunities arise to have well thought-out discussions with our kids, grandkids, and friends about what we believe and why we believe it.