Detailed structural investigations on living cells are problematic because existing structural methods cannot reach high resolutions on non-reproducible objects. Illumination with an ultrashort and extremely bright X-ray pulse can outrun key damage processes over a very short period. This can be exploited to extend the diffraction signal to the highest possible resolution in flash diffraction experiments. Here we present an analysis of the interaction of a very intense and very short X-ray pulse with a living cell, using a non-equilibrium population kinetics plasma code with radiation transfer. Each element in the evolving plasma is modeled by numerous states to monitor changes in the atomic populations as a function of pulse length, wavelength, and fluence. The model treats photoionization, impact ionization, Auger decay, recombination, and inverse bremsstrahlung by solving rate equations in a self-consistent manner and describes hydrodynamic expansion through the ion sound speed. The results show that subnanometer resolutions could be reached on micron-sized cells in a diffraction-limited geometry at wavelengths between 0·75 and 1·5 nm and at fluences of 1011–1012 photons μm−2 in less than 10 fs. Subnanometer resolutions could also be achieved with harder X-rays at higher fluences. We discuss experimental and computational strategies to obtain depth information about the object in flash diffraction experiments.