In Paul's letter to the Thessalonians he is addressing the issue of a false letter being circulated in the church since the time he wrote 1 Thessalonians. In trying to comfort them that the Day of the Lord has not come, he speaks of events that must come before the Day of the Lord. In his address he speaks of the restrainer as if the Thessalonians knew what he is talking about and he also switches the gender of the article from the neuter (v.6 - to katexov) to the masculine (v.7 - o katexwn). The vagueness and the fact that the restrainer has to be a thing and a person at the same time has created a passage for debate.
The other issues that surround this debate is the fact that this is an addition to the first letter to the Thessalonians which dealt with the gathering of the saints in the air (1 Thess. 4:16-17) and the Day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:1-11). It is then one of the crucial passages to determine the order of eschatological events. The largest of these concerns seems to be the current debate on when the Rapture takes place. This problem then seems to be highly charged and pivotal in the study of Eschatology.
The problem then has critical factors which must be adequately handled for a view to withstand critique. There are many considerations and here is the list of some of those.
(1) The view must be able to not violate the fact that the restrainer is neuter as well as masculine in its gender. It must handle the gender issue in a straightforward manner that makes sense.
(2) The restrainer must also be adequate in its ability to hold back the lawless one or come up with another adequate solution.
(3) The view must be consistent with the immediate context of verses 6-7 as well as the whole context of 2 Thessalonians and even 1 Thessalonians. This should result to make Paul's letter clear and simple.
(4) The view should also harmonize with other passages of restraint in the entire Bible. In other words, who or what restrains evil in times past?
(5) The view must be consistent with the outline of events in Eschatology.
The Various Views
The Restrainer as the Roman Empire/Emperor
One of the earlier views is that the restrainer is the empire of Rome including its emperor. This view quotes Romans 13:1-3 as a demonstration that Paul saw Rome as a restrainer of evil or lawlessness.1 This view handles the gender problem since the empire itself is a thing with its emperor a person, hence the masculine use of the article.2 In its ability to handle the restraint of Antichrist it is said that Rome must fall before Antichrist can rule just like all empires must do for another one to come to world power. This view's credibility is also strengthened since it was held to by the early church, but it was not the only one.3 One last thing this view suggests is that Paul is using coded language for fear of repercussions from Rome itself. It is argued that Paul would not have spoken of the Holy Spirit in such enigmatic terms (the other early church view).4
This view obviously has problems due to the progress of history. The view is not widely held since the Roman Empire has fallen. Therefore it is said that it could not have been the restrainer since the picture is that once the restraint is removed the Antichrist will be there on the scene.5 In other words Rome's restraint was not very necessary since it has been quite along time without a restrainer and no Antichrist.
The Restrainer as Human Government
Those then who wanted to cling to the idea of Rome as being the restrainer formulated a new view to generalize the earlier view. The view is that human government or law is removed before the coming of the lawless one—the Antichrist. Its support is viewed then in much the same way as the Roman Empire view.
The problem with this view is that though it handles the issue of Rome being absent, it creates additional problems. Law or human government fails to take into consideration the masculine article denoting a person. It also seems to fail in the fact that human government is not removed before Antichrist since his rule is still human government and it also makes no sense as to how an abstract such as government can be taken out.6 It also makes no sense with Satan being the ruler of this age that government is a sufficient force to withstand him (Eph 2:1-3; Daniel 10:12, 13).7 The connection of human government to the identity of the restrainer does not seem to fit logically with the rest Scripture.
The Restrainer as the Holy Spirit
Another view is that the Holy Spirit is the restrainer who is taken out of the way. The support for this is that spirit in Greek is neuter with specific references of the Holy Spirit using the masculine article.8 The Holy Spirit is also seen as an adequate force to restrain the evil of the past two thousand years.9 Here the Spirit is seen like the Spirit striving with man for one hundred and twenty years in the time before the flood (Gen. 6). This view also holds that it is consistent with the message of the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians and the people's concern for thinking that the Day of the Lord has come.10 In other words the taking out of the Spirit is a reversal of Pentecost. The purpose then of mentioning the restrainer is to give comfort to the church at Thessalonica.
The problem, however, with this view is that it is unlikely that Paul would have used the neuter article to represent the Holy Spirit.11 The change from the neuter to the masculine would also be awkward in itself and would seem to need further explanation by Paul as to what is going on.12 Other arguments against the Holy Spirit are that if he is taken away there is no ministering to the people of the Tribulation. It is also argued that God being omnipresent, cannot be taken out of the way.13
The Church as the Restrainer
This then has led to a variation of the idea of the Spirit being the restrainer. Here the church is removed in the Rapture along with the special ministries of the Holy Spirit since the day of Pentecost. This then corrects the problem of the neuter and masculine articles and gives a restrainer that is credible until the day of the Lord. It also sees the Holy Spirit as still being at work in the Tribulation like he was before the age of the Church. What is removed then is his work of restraint, not all of his other works.14
The problem with this view though is that though it handles the initial requirements it seems to fail since it does not flow contextually. This would be a problem for all of the preceding views as well. Paul mentions the rebellion first and then the revealing of Antichrist (2:3) and all of a sudden Paul claims that they know what or who the restrainer is. Either then Paul had told them earlier who or what it was, without clueing in the readers of Scripture for the last two thousand years and leaving a crux interpretum, or the restrainer must somehow be tied to the context. This then has led to a more modem view which has no early church tradition in their
The Restrainer as Satan or Some Evil Person
In this view the restrainer is believed to not be necessarily good.16 This view comes about by interpreting the restrainer (katexw) as meaning "to possess or occupy".17 This is an available definition under the listing of katexw applied to rulers in Liddell and Scott. The restrainer then becomes the prevailer and since to katexw is the same gender as to mustnrion (the mystery of lawlessness - v. 7) they are said to be parallel terms.18 What they "now know" (v.6) is that the prevailer and its power are the lawless system and person of Satan. This is because Satan prevails in Heaven and rules this age and when he is cast out of heaven in the Tribulation lawlessness will run rampant. Others in this camp would not press the switch of meaning from restrain to prevail, but see Satan as restraining since has not been cast out of heaven yet (Rev. 12:3).
The problems with this view are also easily seen. It simply makes little sense to see Satan or something evil as what Paul is referring to. If Satan is prevailing then in verse 7 lawlessness must end when "he is taken out of the way", not manifest itself even greater after Rev. 12:3.19 Simply it only makes sense that evil cannot restrict evil. There are arguments against that evil can restrain evil, but they fail in that other examples of evil suppression involve good.20 Another argument against this view is that the restrainer is taken out of the midst (ek mesou gevntai). The midst is seen as between the mystery at work now and the revealing of the Antichrist.21 Satan then is not a removal so much as a coming on the scene in Rev. 12:3. This phrase then is pressed into a meaning it was not meant to convey.
The Restrainer as the Archangel Michael
Another view supported recently by Marvin Rosenthal is that Michael is the restrainer who is taken out of the way when Satan is cast to the earth. Similar in a vague sense to the view of Satan, this view sees Rev. 12:3 as the removal period.22 In this view "he is taken out of the way" makes more sense. It is argued that Michael is the protector of Israel and that he is protecting Israel for the time from the evil one.23
The problem with this view is that Michael is a person who would not warrant the use of the neuter article. Another problem is that Michael is nowhere mentioned in any of the letters to the Thessalonians. It would also be questioned if it were possible for Michael to hold back the entire armies of Satan.
A Comprehensive Solution
These then are the major views out there today trying to explain who or what the restrainer is in 2 Thess. 2:6-7. My solution is not a new solution and not a popular solution. It is, however, a solution I believe to be consistent with the early church tradition of the Holy Spirit view and the view which makes the only rational sense in light of Paul addressing a troubled congregation at Thessalonica.
I see the restrainer as the Holy Spirit's power through the Church on earth to hold back the Antichrist that will be ready to use the lawlessness of this age to his advantage. The restrainer must be someone and something opposed to and holding back the revelation of Antichrist. This cannot be handled by the idea that Satan or some evil force is the restrainer or prevailer. It makes no sense of the passage. The Roman Empire and government view also do not sufficiently address the gender and sufficient power to restrain issues. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can have the ability and it must be through his agent the Church to handle the issue of the neuter
In short the Spirit and Church handle the gender issue. This would also give the restrainer the power necessary. This view would also be supported by the fact that the Spirit is called by other titles (John 14:17; 16:7; Rom. 8:2) and that it would be similar to other roles he has played (Gen. 6:3; John 16:7-11; 1 John 4:4). It seems that the Holy Spirit would only have the sufficient power and authority.
The real issue, I believe, that creates all of this confusion is the translation of the word apostasia ("apostasy" - NASB, "rebellion" - RSV, "falling away" - NKJV). If it is translated as "departure" the whole context becomes clear and not the riddle everyone has come to think that it is.24
The only other use of this word in the New Testament is in Acts 21:21. Here the Greek is apostasian didaskeis apo Mwuseis, which is translated "to forsake Moses". The issue is that "apostasy" is a transliteration and not a translation. It is argued that in its use in the LXX as well that the context gives the word its religious meaning, not the word itself.25 Liddle and Scott's classical lexicon lists the meaning of the word as "departure" or "removal from". In Acts it is not an "apostasy from Moses", but "a departure from Moses". The root of apostasia is the verb afisthmi, which means "to revolt" or "to go away".26 Of its fifteen uses in the New Testament, eleven times it is translated “to depart”.27 Though one cannot firmly establish the exact meaning of a word through a word study it does stand that there is room for the option and that the context should determine the meaning. It should bring harmony to the passage in view and if it is the wrong translation, it should cause problems.
In the context of 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul begins by stating that this message concerns our gathering to Christ (v.l). He then states that he is addressing this issue because they are troubled since they were misled to think he has written saying that the Day of the Lord has begun (v.2). Paul then tries to show them why the Day of the Lord could not have begun since there are two things that must come first (v.3). The thing spoken of first is "the apostasy" or "the departure". In other words Paul is saying that a specific event that is identifiable must come before the Antichrist is revealed. If this were an apostasy it would seem hard for the Thessalonians or anybody to grasp what that would be since Paul never speaks of such a specific event before the Antichrist in his Epistles. It is true that there will be an endtime apostasy, but elsewhere in Scripture it is a gradual process (2 Timothy 3:1-17). However, if this were the Rapture-the idea in 1 Thessalonians that the saints would be caught up to Christ to avoid the Day of the Lord, then it would make sense for Paul to addresses this issue in this way.
The key though to this understanding is that the rest of the chapter makes sense and there is no vagueness or wondering what is going on. It makes sense of verse 6 which begins, "And now you know what restrains him" (NKJV).28 What is it that restrains the Antichrist? The thing that must happen first in verse 3, not "the apostasy", but "the departure"–the Rapture of the Church. In verse 6 then, Paul is referring back to the order of verse 3. This makes additional sense since the articles of both the "departure" and "what restrains" are both neuter which would be necessary if they were the same thing.29
It is the Rapture of the Church and the disappearance of the unique work of the Holy Spirit through the Church that makes way for the coming Tribulation. Paul is in effect saying, "You are still here aren’t you? If you are, then the Rapture is still ahead of you and will keep you from the Day of the Lord." This makes sense out of the Thessalonians' fear.
The scenario is probably much the same as the church is today with people thinking that "so and so" is the Antichrist. In Paul's day a Caesar was probably said to be the Antichrist so everyone was concerned and forgot what Paul had told them in 1 Thessalonians. Paul would then obviously make clear his teaching of the Rapture, but to say that he is speaking of simply a rebellion and Antichrist as signs it would seem to be unconvincing to the Thessalonians. After all there was apostasy in their day and a Caesar who could become the Antichrist since the Roman Empire was still in existence.
The context then seems to demand that Paul's message make sense and relate back to his earlier teachings in I Thessalonians. To mention a restrainer out of nowhere would be poor communication, especially to the Church of almost two thousand years that only has these two books of Thessalonians. Some, however, argue that Paul did not know that these letters would become Scripture, but that calls into doubt God's ability to inspire and make sure those to come can understand.30 If “God is not the author of confusion", it would seem to be that the confusion over the identity of the restrainer is caused by our misunderstanding, not the supposed inadequacy of Paul's inspired writings. Our understanding, I believe, is that the restrainer is what has not yet departed, the Church. This seems to be the most logical understanding of the situation at Thessalonica.
Though the word for "apostasy" or "departure" can be debated, the passage seems only understandable in its language, historical situation, and message of Paul with the translation of "departure". The restrainer seems to be identified with "the departure" and if the translation reads "the apostasy" there is no clue about and seemingly broken language of Paul concerning the restrainer. The conclusion then is based on the most reasonable conclusion. Either God has confused us or we have confused ourselves in our transliteration, not translation of a word. No other view or conclusion seems to harmonize the contexts of the Epistles to the Thessalonians.
This issue will probably remain a crux interpretum since the suggested solution seems to be calling for a clear dispensational teaching of a Pretribulation Rapture.
1 Charles A. Wanamaker, Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians, in the New International Greek Testament Commentary, 250.
2 LeonMorris, The Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, Tyndale Commentaries, 129.
3 F.F. Bruce, I and 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary, 170. Bruce cites Tertullian (De resurr. carn. 24) saying, "What is this but the Roman state, whose removal when it has been divided among ten kings will bring Antichrist?" Chrysostom is also cited showing his preference for the view of Rome, but he does acknowledge that others at his time held the view of the Holy Spirit being the restrainer.
4 John Calvin, Commentaries, 332-33.
5 Morris, 129.
6 Hal Lindsey, The Rapture, 154-55. Lindsey does a very good job at summarizing the problems of holding the human government view.
7 Lindsey, 155.
8 Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, 125.
9 Gerald B. Stanton, Kept from the Hour, 100.
10 John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question, 80-81.
11 Wanamaker, 251.
12 Wanamaker, 251.
13 Morris, The Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, 130.
14 Gundry, 126-27.
15 There is another view put forward this century by Oscar Cullman who saw the ministry of Paul and Paul as the restrainers respectfully in w. 6-7. This view has had no following and has many weaknesses, chiefly that Paul is gone like Rome with no Antichrist being revealed. David J. Williams, I and 2 Thessalonians, in the New International Biblical Commentary, 127
16 Paul S. Dixon, "The Evil Restraint in 2 Thess 2:6," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33(December 1990): 446-48.
17 Wanamaker, 252.
18 Wanamaker, 254.
19 Morris. The Epistle, 130.
20 Dixon, 446-48.
21 Gundry, 123.
22 Marvin Rosenthal, The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church, 260.
23 Rosenthal, 259.
24 John Lineberry, Vital Word Studies on 2 Thessalonians, 40-42. Lineberry’s presentation is a good presentation of this view. E. Schuyler English, Re-thinking the Rapture, is another presentation of this view along with Kenneth S. Wuest, "The Rapture-Precisely When?" Bibliotheca Sacra 114(January-March 1957): 63-70.
25 Lineberry, 41.
26 BAGD, 126.
27 Lineberry, 42.
28 The NKJV properly translates nun as being resumptive and not temporal. In other words nun is identified with oidate not katecw). Bruce, 169-70.
29 Lineberry, 42.
30 Gary Demarest, 1, 2 Thessalonians, 118.
Bruce, F.F. 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982.
Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to Philippians,Colossians, and Thessalonians. Translated by John Pringle. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948.
Demarest, Gary W. 1,2 Thessalonians, 1,2 Timothy, Titus. The Communicator's Commentary. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1984.
English, E. Schuyler. Re-thinking the Rapture. Travelers Rest, SC: Southern Bible Book House, 1954.
France, James Everett. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians. The International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1959.
Gundry, Robert H. The Church and the Tribulation. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973.
Ladd, George Eldon. The Blessed Hope. William B. Eerdmans Publishmg Co., 1956.
Lenski, R.C.H. The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles to the Colossians. to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus, and to Philemon. Minneapolis: Augsburgh Publishmg House, 1937.
Lineberry, John. Vital Word Studies in 2 Thessalonians: A Sound Scriptural Presentation Based upon the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961.
Lindsey, Hal. The Rapture: Truth or Consequences. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.
Marshall, I. Howard. 1 and 2 Thessalonians. New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983.
Morris, Leon. The Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958.
Morris, Leon. The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959.
Morris, Leon. 1,2 Thessalonians. Word Biblical Themes. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989.
Pentecost, Dwight J. Things to Come. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1964.
Stanton, Gerald B. Kept from the Hour: A Systematic Study of the Rapture in Bible Prophecy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1956.
Thiessen, Henry C. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949.
Walvoord, John F. The Rapture Question. Findlay, OH: Dunham Publishing Co., 1957.
Wanamaker, Charles A. The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990.
Williams, David J. 1 and 2 Thessalonians. New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992.
Dixon, Paul S. "The Evil Restraint in 2 Thess 2:6." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33(December 1990): 445-9.
Walvoord, John F. "Postribulationalism Today." Bibliotheca Sacra 134(April-June 1977): 107-113.
Wuest, Kenneth S. "The Rapture-Precisely When?" Bibliotheca Sacra 114(January-March 1957): 63-70.