Jesus said in Matthew 12:40, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Luke 23:54 records that Jesus was buried Friday afternoon, just before the Sabbath started at approximately 6 PM on Friday. We also know he was raised early Sunday morning, as the women went to the tomb “at early dawn” (Luke 24:1). This would only total about 2 days.
There are two possible answers to this seeming inconsistency. We know the scriptures are accurate, so we need to understand what Jesus meant when he said that he would be three days and nights “in the heart of the earth.”
1. “Three days and three nights” was a Jewish idiom meaning until the third day. There is some scriptural precedent for this interpretation in Genesis 42:17, 18 and Esther 4:16 and 5:1.
2. Three days and three nights is literal, but “in the heart of the earth” does not mean buried in the ground. The Greek phrase translated “in the heart of the earth” only occurs once in the Bible – in this text. The word translated heart can mean “thoughts or feelings.” So, whose thoughts and actions dominate this present sinful earth? Satan’s. In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Satan is called the “god of this world.” Ephesian 6:12 further teaches we (and certainly Jesus) battle with evil forces: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
Thus, the “heart of the earth” could symbolize Satan and his forces exerting power over Jesus from when He was captured in the Garden of Gethsemane through His trial, crucifixion, and final burial. During that period, Jesus was surrounded by the occupants of the earth under the control of Satan's influences. The soldiers took Jesus on Thursday night, and He would have been "in the heart of the earth" Thursday night through early Sunday morning. This would include three full nights and parts of three days.