It is the Ahmadiyya view that Jesus did not die on the cross but was saved, a view that can be substantiated by the Gospels themselves. Based on a purely rational basis, if one is presented with a story that someone was nailed on the cross, and days later that same wounded person is sighted with evidence of an empty tomb, the natural conclusion is that person did not die in the first place.
Interestingly as seen in section of Sign of Jonah where an analogy is made to being saved from the clutches of death, the earliest disciples referred to the Psalms of David 16:8-11 as a sign of their faith as attested to in Acts 2:25-8. Here again, the Psalms are proclaiming the motif of being saved from untimely death, and continued lease on life – a deliverance from death not out of death. The well known Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible (1971 Ed page 266) states regarding Psalms 16:
He was near death and Lord rescued him… No doctrine of resurrection is involved. After a close brush with death the poet rejoices… because the Lord has given him life…
Although Christians claim that the earliest disciples were ready to sacrifice their life for their belief in resurrection, it is difficult to prove absolutely that belief was the cause of martyrdom, since no writings exist from that era. It is quite possible some were martyred on account of their belief that Jesus was still alive, the sign of Jonah, understood properly, giving them strength. However, any further proselytizing would have certainly ended to the Jews, and as the mission of Jesus was only to the House of Israel, the entire mission in Judea would have collapsed.
One can imagine this immediate post crucifixion period being a precarious time for the followers of Jesus. Many of his followers would have become scattered with some migrating with Jesus himself out of Judea. The Jews were circulating the notion that Jesus died an accursed death on the cross, claiming victory and perhaps now targeting other followers of Jesus in their new enthusiasm. However due to the empty tomb there would have been some doubts in the minds of the persecutors too. Was Jesus really dead? Was the body stolen? Moreover, there may have been rumors of sightings of Jesus.
In response, the followers of Jesus would have taken great pains to conceal the true story of survival to protect Jesus. One can also imagine a situation that if they were taken to task to explain whereabouts of Jesus’ body, they may have even stated Jesus did indeed die but had miraculously risen from death and ascended ‘to God’, so as to mollify the Jews. Had the disciples admitted Jesus survived, that would have posed a potential threat.
How then did the belief arise that Jesus actually rose from the dead in the literal sense and became the dominant narrative? Amidst these difficult circumstances given above, Paul emerged as the originator of a new Jesus movement tailored for the Hellenistic world, outside the homelands of Judaism. He took the wonderful story which had the kernel of truth – Jesus was alive – and created another stream of Christianity distinct from the original stream of Christianity being a Jewish sect abiding by the Mosaic Law. What he created was a religion about Jesus in contra-distinction to the original religion of Jesus. He originated a belief system reminiscent of the Greco-Roman understanding of dying and rising gods straight out of Hellenistic pagan heritage, but fused with Judaic and Gnostic elements.
It is clear from the accounts in the New Testament that Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles was met with considerable controversy and caused significant tension with the disciples of Jesus, for they had been instructed by Jesus himself to not go to the Gentiles. However, Paul saw this as fruitful opportunity to start a movement.
It is sometimes asserted if Paul concocted this faith and was simply an opportunist, why was he willing to suffer and die for that, since it is generally accepted he was martyred for his belief? The argument goes thus the resurrection must have occurred and he must have witnessed the Risen Christ as a powerful personal experience.
However, the problem with this contention is it downplays how strong human motivation can be in lust for power and its intoxicating effects if some success is actually achieved in influencing the masses. One might be willing to give up life even if it is known to be a lie, just to save face. If that seems hard to believe, consider many examples from history. Non-Mormons will have to admit that the Mormon Church was founded by those willing to suffer and die for a delusional belief, and indeed the founder was persecuted and killed. More recently cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh prove the point.
What Paul preached to people became the narrative that survived and that form of Jesus movement became dominant and spread not so much in Judea initially, but beyond among the Greco-Roman world. It is for this reason Paul’s letters and the four Gospels which were composed afterwards are in Greek, and not Hebrew or Aramaic, the original language of Jesus and his followers. Indeed, the only known Hebrew gospel was found in India, by Pantaneus around 180 A.D, as attested by early Church Fathers. The book, unfortunately, is now lost. This is early testimony that the sun of Christianity rose in the east, to lands Jesus migrated to.
So it is the Ahmadiyya belief that Jesus conquered death not through a literal resurrection but a revival – a resuscitation. It provides for a rational account for the empty tomb and the post crucifixion sightings. For the Ahmadiyya, the New Testament is a starting point in reconstructing and finding the historic Jesus, a quest that has eluded scholars for centuries.