Why wasn't Paul executed for either murder or kidnapping?
Anyone trying to argue against the death penalty from the fact that Paul wasn't executed is (at best) arguing from silence. None of the early Christians were in a position of authority which would have allowed them to sentence Paul to execution. They were forbidden by Biblical law from taking their own private vengeance (Lev. 19:18). It was also clear from Jesus' commission to Paul (Acts 9:15-16) that he intended for Paul to continue living.
A Biblically-just trial requires, at a minimum:
- A just judge (someone following Biblical law and its judicial procedural standards)
- At least two witnesses to the crime who are willing to testify
- The authority (from God) to establish a civil government that is able to carry out executions.
Considering #2 in Paul's case, it's not clear that Paul actually carried out any murders himself. The closest we come might be Acts 9:1 and Acts 26:9-11. But a mere threat to slaughter is not a death penalty offense in Biblical law.
Furthermore, #3 above was not possible at the time (1st century), because God had explicitly placed his people under the authority of Rome (see the statue prophecy of Daniel 2), and Rome wasn't allowing judicial executions to be carried out in certain of its tributaries. The Christians had not set up such a civil government yet, because they knew they were predestined by God (from the prophecy in Daniel 2) to be under Roman rule until the Roman Empire was destroyed. This is why Paul warned about rebellion against Rome in Romans 13. As far as the Romans knew, Paul had done nothing "worthy of death" (Acts 25:11), so no one could have charged Paul (a Roman citizen) with a death penalty offense under Roman law.
If we're going to speculate about Paul's case, we have to consider the following:
1. Paul was zealous for the law as he understood it at the time (Gal. 1:14), before his Damascus road conversion. Paul believed that Jesus was a false messiah, and that his followers were rebels against the civil government (see, for example, their clear public defiance in Acts 4 and 5).
2. There doesn't seem to be any scriptural evidence that Paul murdered anyone. The closest we come might be Acts 9:1 and Acts 26:9-11. But a mere threat to slaughter is not a death penalty offense in Biblical law.
What about the fact that Paul stood by while Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:59)? Doesn't this make him a murderer by failing to prevent it?
Consider this position carefully. It is the ethical question of acting versus omitting to act. If you know that, for example, babies are being murdered at your local abortion clinic (or any abortion clinic), are you a murderer because you do not act to stop these murders? Wouldn't that make every single person in the world a murderer (by omitting to act)? This is consequentialist ethics, not Biblical ethics.
I suggest that Biblical law would not consider you a murderer worthy of death if you did not act to stop a murder, even if it was in your immediate power to do so (as it is right now, because abortion clinics are murdering people as I write).
Biblical law does support your right to use deadly force to protect others. But if you simply omit to protect someone, the justice system is not in a position to second-guess your reasoning. Therefore, you are not liable to be executed as a "murderer by omission".
3. What about kidnapping? That's a death penalty offense in Biblical law, and Paul did apprehend Christians (Acts 8:3). But Paul was probably acting on the orders of the Sanhedrin (unjust as they were), and Paul wouldn't have considered his action to be "kidnapping", but rather "apprehending fugitives/traitors". He probably believed that his actions were right and just in his own mind, and that he was following the lawful orders of the civil government.
But let's assume, hypothetically, that Paul had committed some kind of death penalty crime. That leads us to:
4. There was no civil authority, with the legal power to execute, other than the Romans. The Christians had not set up such a civil government, because they knew they were predestined by God (from the prophecy in Daniel 2) to be under Roman rule until the Roman Empire was destroyed. As far as the Romans knew, Paul had done nothing "worthy of death" (Acts 25:11), so no one could have charged Paul (a Roman citizen) with a death penalty offense under Roman law. Furthermore, the Christians would not have considered the Roman courts to be just courts; they would have no motivation to go before pagans to attempt to get justice.
5. Jesus made it clear to the early Christians that he had given Paul a commission which required him to continue living:
15 But the Lord said to him, “Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” Acts 9:15-16WEB
No true Christian would gainsay the judgment of their one and only rightful king.
- See What is Paul saying about civil government in Romans 13?
- Under certain circumstances, you might be morally obligated to defend others. For example, protecting your own child or another dependent family member, or helping someone whom you have put in harm's way.