Q&A: Restrainer's Identity

Restrainer's Identity

Question

Do you think the restrainer in the end times is the prayers of the church or the Holy Spirit?

Answer

It is very hard to guess who or what the "restrainer" mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 is (or was), but we can rule out some possibilities. It cannot be the prayers of the church, since there will be (or were) people left on earth when the restrainer is (or was) removed. Since the church will not be removed until Jesus returns (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:51ff.; 2 Thess. 2:1), and the church will pray the entire time they are on earth, they will be on earth even while the man of lawlessness is unrestrained. Moreover, there is nothing in the context of 2 Thessalonians to suggest that Paul had the prayers of the church in mind.

Also, the restrainer is probably not the Holy Spirit. The restrainer is (or was) something that will be (or was to be) eventually "taken out of the way" (a passive verb in Greek) of the man of lawlessness. The Holy Spirit is the person of God who performs divine activity in the world, so Paul probably would not have described the Holy Spirit as being passively removed from the way. Rather, the Holy Spirit would be the one who actively removed the restrainer.

Further, Paul declined to mention the restrainer, saying instead that the Thessalonians knew of whom or what he spoke because he had told them these things previously when he had been in Thessalonica. The fact that Paul did not speak plainly here may indicate that he was trying to be delicate, and that he did not want to upset people who might be offended by what he was saying (perhaps people like Roman authorities who might have caused trouble for the church if they had known what Paul really meant). Paul would have had little reason to mask the identity of the restrainer if it were something like prayers or the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere he was very bold about mentioning the effectiveness of God and prayer in restraining evil. This implies that the restrainer was a person or human institution.

Certainly the restrainer was already active when Paul wrote, and the man of lawlessness seems to have been already present as well (2 Thess. 2:6), though some interpret this as meaning that only the force behind the man of lawlessness was present. If the restrainer and the man of lawlessness are understood as metaphors for something other than individual human beings, then they could be institutions or types which might show up repeatedly throughout history. The language which seems to speak of an actual person may refer to a figurehead of that (those) institution(s). Because prophecy is notoriously metaphoric, this may well be the proper way to approach this passage.

On the other hand, sometimes prophecy is not as metaphoric as at other times. Given that Paul seems to have been speaking more didactically than prophetically, perhaps the passage ought to be taken more literally than metaphorically. If the restrainer and/or the man of lawlessness were actual people, then he and/or they must have died long ago, almost certainly in the first century A.D. Personally, I think this is the best explanation, especially with regard to the man of lawlessness. Paul spoke of him as a real person, and told the Thessalonians certain actions that the man of lawlessness would perform. These actions seem fitting only for a real person (though admittedly they could be metaphoric actions by a metaphoric figure). If we understand the man of lawlessness as an actual man, and if we understand the temple as the actual temple in Jerusalem (rather than a metaphor), then the man of lawlessness had to do his thing before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.

A complicating issue is the fact that God is not obligated to fulfill every prophecy. Sometimes he alters the fulfillment, sometimes he delays its fulfillment, sometimes he simply determines not to fulfill it at all (e.g. Jer. 18:1-10).

Another complicating issue is the fact that Paul nowhere said that Jesus would return as soon as the man of lawlessness was made manifest. His point was not to lay out the plan of the end times, but to encourage the Thessalonians that the end had not yet come. To do this, he did not need to reveal God's counsel to them fully (if he even knew it; cf. Matt. 24:36-39; Acts 1:7-9), but only to show that any one of any number of events preceding Jesus' coming had not yet occurred. The man of lawlessness may just have been an obvious and relevant example since he had recently spoken to the Thessalonians about the subject (2 Thess. 2:5).


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.