Muslims believe it is mockery to say that Jesus died at the hands of the Jews, or humans, for mans sins. They also believe that saying Jesus’ death propitiates God’s wrath for our sins is mockery as well. They are half right as propitiating God’s wrath or Penal Substitution–the idea that Jesus paid God for our sins through punishment–is a false doctrine. Jesus’ death on the cross, however, they are completely wrong about. (For more on the false doctrine of Penal Substitution see Problems with Penal Substitution, Isaiah 53 and the Atonement and Christianity – More than the Crucifixion.)
With this distaste for the crucifixion, Muslims cite Matthew 12:40 to show that Jesus did not die on the cross and, therefore, he did not die for man’s sins:
For as Jonas 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.
Muslims reason that this verse shows that Jesus did not die on the cross, because as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the fish, he did not die. As a result, they conclude that the prophecy in Matthew 12:40 could not be fulfilled unless, like Jonah, Jesus never died. The problem, however, is they misunderstand what is going on with the story of Jonah which we will point out here and what Jesus dying for our sins really means. To get a better understanding let’s look at the parallels in the story of Jonah and Matthew which will show that both Jonah and Jesus did in fact die.
Parallels between Jonah and Jesus
Most of us know the basics of what happened to Jonah. It is a story we have heard since we were little kids. Jonah is swallowed by a fish after his body is cast into the sea saving the others on the ship he was on from death due to a storm. Jonah had ran away rather than staying and doing God’s will, which caused the storm. While in the belly, this is what Jonah says:
Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, And he said, I yelled my affliction to [the] LORD my God, and he hearkened to me. From out of [the] belly of Hades [was] my cry; you heard my voice. You threw me into the depths of the heart of the sea, and rivers encircled me. All your crests and your waves upon me went. And I said, Have I been thrust away from your eyes? Surely I shall proceed to look towards your holy temple. Water was poured about me unto the soul. The deep encircled me to the extreme; my head went down. Into the fissures of mountains I went down; into the earth whose bar holds are everlasting barriers. Yet let my life ascend from corruption, O LORD my God! (Jonah 2:1-6)
Notice Jonah cries “from out of the belly of Hades.“. No one went to Hades unless they died as this is where the Bible says all souls went at their passing. Hades is the equivalent of Sheol in the Hebrew text, or the abode of the dead.
Surprising as it may be to some who have been taught that Jonah lived, we see that he has actually died inside the belly of the fish. Even so, he prays for God to save him for he says, “Surely I shall proceed to look towards your holy temple,” meaning heaven. This where some people get hung up on the idea that Jonah did not die, since some people maintain that the dead can not think or pray. However, as we see in the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:26), people were aware that they were in Hades. If they were conscious then they could certainly pray.
The imagery of death and Hades continues as Jonah describes what is happening to him further: “Into the fissures of mountains I went down; into the earth whose bar holds are everlasting barriers. Yet let my life ascend from corruption, O LORD my God!”
In John Wesley’s notes on the Bible, we see the same for verse six showing that Jonah has died:
Verse 6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God
From corruption — Or the pit, a description of the state of the dead.
Wesley points out that, “from corruption,” point to “the pit” which is Hades, as well as, “a description of the state of the dead.” Jonah was repentant at this point which restored his soul to his body which did not see corruption from Hades. From here he could go on and do what God had intended him to do in the first place, preach repentance to the gentile Ninevites. This is further imagery of Jesus’ death, the preaching to those in Hades as well as the spreading of the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Whether the story of Jonah is factual or was used for allegory we do not know. However, as we have seen he died in the belly of the fish either way.
We know, too, from the New Testament that like Jonah, Jesus also was not left in Hades, nor did He see corruption:
He, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption.” (Acts 2:31)
For you shall not abandon my soul into Hades, nor shall you give your sacred one to see corruption. (Acts 2:27)
Another parallel we can make is when Jonah refers to the “fissures of mountains” in verse six. This too is another hint that Jonah went into Hades as “fissures” is the same Greek word for “chasm,”. Recall above where we mentioned the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Abraham’s bosom which is upper Hades where the righteous went at death.:
And upon all these [things], between us and you a great chasm is firmly fixed; so that the ones wanting to pass over on this side to you are not able, nor the ones from there to us should pass through. (Luke 16:26)
Hades was divided into two sections, known as upper Hades and lower Hades, which were separated by an uncrossable chasm, or fissure. Abraham and others who were righteous went to upper Hades, awaiting the Messiah, while those who were unrighteous went to lower Hades that according to the bible was a place of torment and fire.
Jesus became incarnate, lived a sinless life according to God’s will, died, descending into Hades to preach to those there, as Jonah preached to the Ninevites. We can imagine that Jonah’s death in the belly of the fish was possibly what we call today a near death experience where the person is dead, they get to see a glimpse of Heaven or Hell, but are brought back quickly. Simple put, either way, whatever it was, it was a prophecy of the crucifixion that was fulfilled in Jesus. This is called the Harrowing of Hell. Jonah come back from Hades or his near death experience to preach to the Ninevites, whereas Jesus did his preaching to the captives in Hades and was then was resurrected, defeating death for all and giving us Eternal life. Had He not died, none of this could have been completed. And this is how Jesus died for our sins, as a ransom for many (see Mark 10:45, 1 Timothy 2:6).
Other Verses to Consider
In Matthew 12:40 Jesus says He will be three days and three nights in the heart of the Earth. For those who still do not believe that Jonah died in the belly of the fish, it does not matter as one can not go to Hades unless they died as already mentioned. The heart of the Earth was a Hebrew phrase meaning Hades.
Psalm 74:12: 12 But God our king is before [the] eon. He worked deliverance in [the] midst (heart) of the earth.
Note: “midst of the Earth” is the same meaning, middle, heart, etc.
2 Esdras  And they shall see the men who were taken up, who from their birth have not tasted death; and the heart of the earth’s inhabitants shall be changed and converted to a different spirit.
Jesus was clearly saying in Matthew 12:40 that He will be LIKE Jonah three days and nights in the Heart of the Earth or Hades. The context in Matthew however still points to Jesus’ death.
Jesus mentioned His death more than once:
From that time on Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Matthew 16:21)
The Apostles taught that Jesus’ death was a defeat of our bondage to it, to release those held by death and Satan:
Therefore he says, Having ascended into [the] height he captured [the] captivity, and he gave gifts to men. 9 And the one that ascended, what is it unless that also he came down first unto the lower parts of the earth? 10 The one having come down, he is also the one having ascended up above all the heavens, that he should fulfill all [things]. (Ephesians 4:8)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient … (1 Peter 3:18–20)
For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 4:6)
I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. (Revelation 1:18)
It’s quite clear that there is undeniable proof that both, Jonah and Jesus, died and descended into Hades. Jonah however had no purpose there, but to foreshadow Christ and for his own rebellion against God to taste death so that he would be compelled to go to the Gentiles as God wanted. Jonah’s death also saved those on the ship as well from the storm. But they were alive, not already deceased. Whereas Jesus’ death saved all, both those who will die one day and those already deceased.
Jesus was the son of God whose task in Hades was to save us all. Once He was resurrected He had conquered death, releasing the captives in Hades, and giving us the ability to receive eternal life as well. Had He not died, He could not have descended into Hades. Had He not died, He could not have defeated death. Had He not died, we could not be offered eternal life, restoring to us the immortality that Adam lost at the fall. Therefore, the death of Christ plays a crucial role in Christianity. The Harrowing of Hell and the resurrection are what the Atonement was all about, not Jesus taking punishment from God. If Muslims believe that Jesus is a prophet, and that He speaks truth, then why do you not believe He died? There is clear evidence that He says He must die. To deny this would be to call Jesus himself a liar.