Who or What Is the "Restrainer"
In 2 Thessalonians 2?
on Jerusalem, in its continuing endeavor to make available interesting and
doctrinally sound articles associated with Bible Prophecy offers this concise,
but excellent article on the subject of the “withholder” that is mentioned by
Paul in his letter to the Church at Thessalonica. The Apostle Paul’s letter
helps establish the connecting links between the Great Falling Away of the
Church, and the eventual revealing of the Antichrist, as they relate to the Day
of the Lord. The “withholder,” identified as the restrainer, has been the
subject of much debate and controversy within the study of eschatology. FOJ
hopes that its presentation will inspire your further interest in the wonderful
study of the amazing prophetic world of the Holy Bible. (11-24-2005)
beginning of 2 Thessalonians 2 makes it clear that at least two events will
precede the advent of the "Day of the Lord": the arrival of the great apostasy
and the unveiling of the "man of sin" (v. 3). Paul reminded the Thessalonians
that he had taught them these truths when he had ministered among them
In verses 6-12 the apostle went on to remind them of something
else that they already knew, which is actually a third event that must precede
the Day of the Lord. As he had written in verse 3, the revelation of the man of
sin must take place first, but, in the meantime, there is something holding back
the tide of lawlessness that will erupt when he is revealed. That restrainer
must be removed before the man of sin appears in his diabolical role as
arch-deceiver. What (or who) is this restrainer, and what will happen when it
(or he) is removed?
" And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed
in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who
now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way." (vv. 6,7).
Clarifying the identity of this "restrainer" is vital to a
correct understanding of this passage and crucial for our understanding of
end-time events. Before we attempt to identify what is keeping the man of sin
from being revealed, we must note some important facts about these verses.
First, the present tense of verse 6 (i.e., "now you know
what is restraining") shows that the arresting force or person was
already in operation in Paul’s day. From this passage it is also clear that the
restrainer will operate until the Antichrist appears on the scene.
Second, the restrainer is described with a neuter expression
in verse 6 but with a masculine form in verse 7. This change indicates that the
restrainer can be spoken of both as a thing and as a person.
Third, the restraining influence will be removed at the
appropriate time. "His time" in verse 6 may be either God’s time or the
Antichrist’s time. The emphasis, however, is that at an appointed time in the
prophetic program, the restrainer will be removed, allowing the rebel to launch
his rebellion publicly on the earth.
Thus far we have seen that there are actually three events
that must precede the Day of the Lord. They are, in order, the apostasy, the
removal of the restrainer, and the unveiling of the man of sin. Let us now
attempt to more specifically identify what or who the restrainer is.
A number of proposals have been set forth as to the identity
of the restrainer. Around 200 A.D., Tertullian suggested that it was the Roman
Empire, particularly in its role of maintaining law and order. While Paul did
affirm such a role for the higher powers mentioned in Romans 13:1-7 and Titus
3:1, it is doubtful that this is the correct interpretation because the Roman
government faded 1,500 years ago, and the man of sin did not appear before then
and still has not appeared. The predicted events simply did not occur.
Another similar interpretation is that the restrainer is the
principle of human government in general, exercising its restraint on aberrant
human behavior. This view is also doubtful because human government has often
failed in restraining evil acts and at times has even encouraged them by its
lack of moral restraints. Furthermore, the prophetic scriptures are clear that
human governments will still be present after the advent of the man of sin.
Consider, for example, the statements in Matthew 25:31 and following and
Revelation 16:12-16. Governments will be in existence during the Day of the
Another novel idea that has emerged in recent years is that
the restrainer is the Archangel Michael, who supposedly will "stand aside" and
allow Israel to be persecuted during the "time of Jacob’s trouble" (Jer. 30:7).
This view, however, first appeared in quasi-Christian magical papyri of the
third century A.D. and has never been espoused by any reputable theologian. It
is based on a total misunderstanding and erroneous translation of Daniel 12:1,
which actually states just the opposite view—that Michael will "stand up" for
Israel at that time, not abandon them.
If the restrainer can be described both in neuter and
masculine ways and must have sufficient supernatural power to restrain the
Satanic mystery of lawlessness, the Holy Spirit is the only person who fits all
of these characteristics and is the best possible identity of the restrainer.
The word "spirit" is neuter in its grammatical form ("pneuma") but describes one
who is actually a person ("he" in vv. 6-7). But how does the Holy Spirit
presently restrain the mystery of lawlessness? Through Christians, the body of
Christ, whom He indwells and through whom He works in society to hold back the
swelling tide of lawless living.
But how, then, will he "be taken out of the way" (v. 7) when
the church leaves the earth in the Rapture? He will not be removed in a complete
sense but in His unique ministry of restraining lawlessness through God’s people
(see a parallel in Gen. 6:3). He will leave in the distinctive sense in which He
came at Pentecost. Just as He was active in saving people before Acts 2, so He
will be active during the Day of the Lord (see, for example, Rev. 7). But He
will cease His restraining ministry through the church, since it will no longer
exist on earth due to its having been raptured earlier.
The removal of the restrainer at the Rapture of the church
must therefore precede the Day of the Lord—a truth confirmed by many other
passages in the New Testament (e.g., John 14:1-3; 1 Thes. 5:9; Rev. 3:10). In
the context of 2 Thessalonians 2, the readers should have known that they were
not in the Tribulation period because the Rapture had not yet occurred.