What is the Restrainer in 2 Thessalonians 2?

This is a difficult problem in reading the apocalyptic section of 2 Thessalonians. Paul says the Man of Perdition cannot be revealed until the “restrainer” is removed. The problem is that he does not explicitly state who or what the restrainer is. Both the restraining power and the mystery of lawlessness are active at the time Paul writes. The restrainer must therefore be something active at the time of Paul and will continue to be active until the Day of the Lord. As a result, there are a number of suggestions as to the identity of this restrainer / restraining power.

There are two issues that need to be resolved with respect to the identity of the restrainer. First, there are lexical issues: What does the term κατέχω (katexo) mean? The word can mean to hold back or restrain, but also “to hold fast, keep secure.”

Devil FlandersSecond, and perhaps more problematic, are grammatical issues. In verse 6, Paul uses a neuter singular participle, but in verse 7 he uses a masculine singular participle. These two words should not refer to the same thing according to the rules of the Greek language. The first must have neuter referent, the second a masculine. The many suggested alternatives for understanding this passage can be categorized as taking the restrainer as a good force or an evil force.

From the time of Tertullian on, the neuter participle was taken as a reference to the Roman empire and the masculine to the emperor himself. The verb means “to restrain,” therefore it is the rule of the Roman empire (or the rule of law, God ordained political order, etc) that restrains the chaos of the man of lawlessness from being revealed. The problem with this view is that Paul does not have a political rebellion in mind, but rather a religious apostasy, a rebellion against God.  It is also difficult to see Paul claiming that the fall of Rome will be the beginning of the tribulation period and the power of the Anti-Christ.

Oscar Cullman suggested the neuter participle is the preaching of the Gospel and the masculine participle is Paul himself as the key leader of the evangelical outreach in the first century. There is a serious problem with this view since Paul believed he would participate in the return of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13ff). This interpretation would need to have Paul taken out of the way before the beginning of the Day of the Lord.

I . Howard Marshall defends this position by accepting the first participle as the preaching of the gospel, but changing the identification of the second to something other than Paul. Essentially he sees the God as restraining the forces of evil in the present age so that the preaching of the gospel can be fully accomplished. The force holding back evil is an angel or some spiritual being working on God’s behalf. This presupposes the idea the gospel must be preached to the whole world before the Day of the Lord, which is not something Paul considered a requirement for the Day of the Lord to happen. This position is appealing since it makes God the restraining power, but one must deal with the “taking away” of the restrainer. God could not be removed, although his role as a restrainer may be.

Roger D. Aus (JBL 96 [1977]: 537-553) argues there are many allusions to Isaiah 66 in 2 Thessalonians so the source of the restrainer should also found in Isaiah. While the word does not appear in the LXX Isaiah 66:9 does talk about the shutting up of the womb as an image for the delay in restoring the fortunes of Israel.  Aus argues that Paul is freely translating the MT at this point, using katexw to mean delay of the Day of the Lord.  While it is possible that the verb could be used to translate the Hebrew of Isaiah 66:9, it is far from the most obvious choice, and Paul simply uses the verb without any modification.

As early as Darby (Notes, 452), the restrainer has been identified as the Holy Spirit in the Church. Walvoord, for example, argues in his prophetic writings that the restraining power is the Holy Spirit.  This is not essentially different than I. H. Marshall described above, although Darby and other following Dispensationalist have made far more of this than Marshall would allow.  If the restrainer is the Holy Spirit, then this passage becomes a clear argument in favor of a pre-tribulational rapture. The Holy Spirit is restraining the satanic influences in the world through the activity of the Church the Body of Christ. When the Body of Christ is removed from the world, the Satan is free to attack the world through the Anti-Christ.

Obviously this is a powerful argument for the pre-tribulational Rapture position. But is the restrainer of 2 Thessalonians 2 the Holy Spirit? Is that what this passage is really saying? The grammar of the passage makes the identification of the Holy Spirit as the restrainer impossible since the restrainer is masculine and the word for Spirit is neuter. If the genders are properly interpreted, they need to refer to two different albeit coordinated things. An additional problem is the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in the passage. The gospel is mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2 but the Holy Spirit is not.

In the most recent revival of this argument, Charles Powell (BibSac 154 [July 97]: 321-333) sees the preaching of the Gospel as a part of the restraining force, but settles on the first referring to the Spirit and the second to God, with not contradiction based on the Trinity. He observes that in John 14:26 the Holy Spirit is called ὁ δὲ παράκλητος (ho paraklētos), a masculine noun referring the neuter pneuma.This avoids any grammatical difficulties and the thrust of the argument is in line with I. H. Marshall.

Someone might object the Old Testament very clearly indicates the Holy Spirit will be active in the tribulation (Joel 2, for example.) If the Holy Spirit is removed at the beginning of the Tribulation, how can the Spirit be “poured out” as Joel predicts? It is possible to argue the restraining function of the Spirit is by means of the Body of Christ, and the restraining function will end at the rapture. Other activities of the Holy Spirit, such as empowerment for ministry or prophecy, will continue.

Therefore it is best to conclude that the Restrainer power is God, through the Holy Spirit and the positive effects of the preached Gospel. The Spirit is active in the world as a preserving agent, a ministry that will end prior to the final time of persecution before the messiah returns (at the time of the Rapture, if you are into that sort of thing).

10 thoughts on “What is the Restrainer in 2 Thessalonians 2?

  1. I totally agree with what you concluded. I think that the restrainer is God through the Holy Spirit. I think that He restrains stuff/people so that thinks do not go the way that they should not go. He does not allow satan to do everything so he restrains him. I believe that the Holy Spirit will leave when the rapture happens and let satan have full control of the world to do as he pleases. When the Spirit leaves, we rapture will then unfold the way that it should.

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  2. I would agree with P. Long’s final conclusion. Really out of all the positions P. Long spoke of, and the ones Polhill added (I believe he added Satan as being the restrainer as well), the idea of God/Holy Spirit being the restrainer makes the most sense to me, in my limited knowledge of the subject. The idea of it being Paul conflicts in my mind with the idea of Paul being nearly 2000 gone now. P. Long and Polhill both added the useful tidbit about Paul fully believing to be alive during the rapture as well.

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  3. I also agree with P-Long’s conclusion. When I read 2 Thessalonians for our assignment my automatic thought was that of God keeping Satan on a leash until the appropriate time. Like Jessica said God doesn’t allow Satan to do everything so he restrains him. Second Thessalonians 2:7 in the ESV reads “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.” When I looked up the Thayer definition of the word translated “restrains” in that verse, some of the definitions it gave me were “to hold back, detain, retain” and “to hold fast, keep secure, keep firm possession of”. I think those definitions fit with that picture. Also in respect to the comment about the problem of God (if he is the restrainer) being taken away, in the ESV it doesn’t even say taken away it says “until he is out of the way” which could indicate a simple stepping aside.

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  4. I would have to agree with everyone again and go with what I was told since i was a “wee littl’ lad”. The restrainer is God through the Holy Spirit. This is why so many Christians come to the conclusion that the rapture must happen to have the Tribulation. I think a good reason to believe that the restrainer is God is the example of Job’s life. Satan had to go before God twice to even try to inflict any damage to Job’s life or body. God is in control over his creation and that means he is restraining the evil. He will appoint the time that Satan can run rampant and it will only be done to the exact limits that God puts on Satan. Our God is sovereign over his creation and we can trust that he has it in his hands.

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  5. I 5th (?) this point. =]. But yeah I agree that the restrainer is God through the holy spirit. I like the way Britalia puts it with the “on a leash” reference, I hadn’t thought of it like that really the first time I read though it but then I went back and read it again and can totally see that. God knows what he is doing… obviously… and He can do whatever he wants. God holds satan back/restrains him and will continue to until the proper time (2 Thess. 2:6). Like Brent said “Our God is sovereign over his creation and we can trust that he has it in his hands.”

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  6. I disagree with the final point. (Not really, but someone had to say it).

    However, as Devil’s advocate, I believe there is an argument to be made against P. Long’s conclusion.

    Based on the confusion created by the two different uses of ‘restrainer’ in the text it could be argued that Paul did not intend any theological meaning, teaching or insight. The overall point of the passage, as pointed out in class, was to encourage the the Thessalonians, as well as give them hope. That Paul used the grammatically wrong word indicates the unimportance of it’s meaning.

    This is not a theory “I would take a bullet for” but it certainly does seem possible. Especially if one took 1 Thessalonians Ch. 5 as a bases for any and all eschatology.

    “While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.

    6 “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. ” (1 Thess. 6-10)

    As to knowledge of the end, Paul says we must be alert that it is coming so that we are inspired to live continually strong in Christ. “Self controlled with faith, love, and hope”. If this is the point of eschatology, than a complex view of the end isn’t needed, it becomes a nicety.

    No bullets, please. Ok, so I don’t think an in depth eschatology is only a nicety. But I have seen the debate and arguing over the truth of Christ’s return destroy the hope that Paul teaches we should have. Is it not therefore always safer to lean toward a view that is most reconcilable to all views? Enough canyons have been carved in eschatology debate, I think a few more bridges need to be built so that hope can be restored.

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  7. Although it is interesting to try and figure out exactly what Paul meant by “the Restrainer”, as Longenecker says, “these issues mattered little to Paul” (p.78), and I think that we should be careful that we also do not spend too much time on these issues. Although many of us can come to the conclusion that Paul was referring to God as the Restrainer, there are many people who would come to different conclusions, such as those mentioned in the post. While it is perfectly fine for everyone to come to their own conclusions, and I think that it is important for people to do their own research and decide for themselves on topics such as these, the problem comes when we focus too much on these issues and not enough on God himself. This can cause unnecessary conflict between believers, and sometimes people may become more focused on figuring out the answer to questions such as these that we can never know the answer to instead of focusing on the many truths that God does reveal to us. The important thing that everyone should realize when studying this passage is that whoever the Restrainer is, when he does release the “man of lawlessness”, Jesus will come and overthrow him (2 Thessalonians 2:8). Because of this, we as Christians need to make sure that we “stand firm” (2 Thess 2:15) in our faith, and do not let these matters of who the Restrainer is distract us from the ultimate goal.

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  8. I think it may be right that the Holy Spirit is the restrainer of the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2. As to what you say P. Long about Paul saying there will be an apostasy rebellion and not a political rebellion makes more sense with the coming of Christ. “Things about the end times/apostasy rebellion could have been not that clear to Paul then and his remarks now regard us” (TTP, 78). This is interesting to think that Paul’s remarks then may regard people today, I think that was what the text by Longenecker and still was saying. Many people are kind of unclear on this subject of what the restraining force is. “Augustine said he did not know what Paul meant either” (TTP, 78).

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  9. The view on the subject of the “restrainer” that Paul has a “religious apostasy” in mind does not make sense because that would mean it would be someone who was once a believer turned away from Christianity and is now against it. In his book, “Thinking Through Paul: A Survey of His Life, Letters, and Theology,” Bruce W. Longenecker writes that “In any event, when the ‘lawless one’ (restrainer) in collusion with Satan does come, he will ‘use all sorts of displays of power…and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing'” (2 Thess 2:9-10; Longenecker 78). After reading on the topic of the restrainer in Longenecker’s book and reading this post, as well as a few of the comments, I would conclude that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit/God restraining the enemy until the Day of Judgement. Why Paul does not identify the restrainer, I do not know, but Longenecker writes “…these issues mattered little to Paul…Perhaps such things were as opaque to him as his remarks regarding them now are to us” (Longenecker, 78). I don’t understand why it wouldn’t be made clear to us and was it not made clear to Paul? Is that why he didn’t reveal who the restrainer was? Did he assume that the readers would know what he was talking about or did he not think it was important information to be revealed?

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  10. I agree that the “restraining power” that is holding back Satan as well as the many different demonic forces at play in our world today is in fact God Himself. However, this does not mean that God can use human forces (such as governments, police, military, and so on) to keep us from destroying ourselves until he comes to reign again (the second coming). As we know, governments and leaders are not something that human beings simply created themselves. They were designed by God to provide order and restraint for the human race. As it says in Psalm 22:28: “For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations”. A king or president may think he or she is the ruler of a country or nation, but as we see from the scriptures, it is in fact God alone who rules all. A second important verse to remember when concerning the subject of governments is Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God”. If God were to simply remove his presence from earth, any form of government, economy, and so on would simply collapse and there would be utter chaos soon to follow. The Lord has put these in place as part of His overall plan and will for mankind. This unnamed but assumed to be God “restraining force” also holds back “the lawless one” (anti-christ). As we know from 2 Thessalonians 2:8-10, the lawless one will deceive many with “wondrous signs”. This is why we as believers in Jesus Christ must remain vigilant until we return to the Father in heaven, and also know the scriptures so we are not deceived by the trickery of the devil. Ultimately though, God as already defeated the anti-christ. As Longnecker aptly quotes from Luthor: “one single word shall fell him” (Longnecker, p.78)

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