Students of biblical prophecy have differing views over the identity of the restrainer in 2 Thessalonians 2:6–7. He is called “the one who restrains” in some translations (ESV, NASB); other translations call Him “the one who holds back” (NIV), “he who letteth” (KJV), or “he who is keeping down” (YLT). Whoever the restrainer is, He is someone of great power who is hindering the advance of the Antichrist and preventing the satanic kingdom from overwhelming the world.
In his second epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul assured the church that they were not yet living in the Day of the Lord, that is, the end times’ judgment had not yet begun. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3 he says, “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.” According to God’s timetable, the Day of the Lord and the accompanying judgment will not start until two things happen: a global rebellion occurs and the Antichrist is revealed. Paul then mentions what is currently keeping the evil in check: “And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed” (verses 6–8).
Paul does not specifically identify what or who the restraining force is, since the Thessalonians already knew. Many scholars have speculated as to the identity of the restrainer, naming the restraining force as 1) the Roman government; 2) gospel preaching; 3) the binding of Satan; 4) the providence of God; 5) the Jewish state; 6) the church; 7) the Holy Spirit; and 8) Michael the archangel. We believe the restrainer is none other than the Holy Spirit, or we could say the Holy Spirit working through the New Testament church.
Supporting the idea that the Holy Spirit within the church is the restrainer is the fact that the restrainer is referenced both as a thing (neuter gender, verse 6) and as a person (masculine gender, verse 7). Also, the power delaying Satan’s masterplan to unveil his false messiah must be of God. It makes much more sense to say that the Holy Spirit is curbing the devil than a political entity or even an angel. The Holy Spirit of God is the only Person with sufficient (supernatural) power to do this restraining.
Of course, the Spirit works through believers to accomplish this. The church, indwelt by the Spirit of God, has always been part of what holds society back from the swelling tide of lawless living. At some point, Paul says, the Spirit will “step aside” from His restraining work, allowing sin to have dominion over mankind. Second Thessalonians 2:7 can be literally rendered, “The secret of lawlessness is already working, only it cannot be revealed until he who now withholds disappears from the midst.” We believe this “disappearing from the midst” will happen at the time the church leaves the earth at the rapture. The Holy Spirit will still be present in the earth, of course, but He will be taken out of the way in the sense that His unique sin-restraining ministry—through God’s people—will be removed (see Genesis 6:3).
Second Thessalonians 2 is clear that the removal of the restrainer’s influence precedes the revealing of the Antichrist. Given free rein during the tribulation, the lawless one will “use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders” to deceive the people of the earth (verses 9–10). After the Antichrist’s time is up, the Lord Jesus will return and overthrow the man of sin by “the breath of his mouth and destroy [him] by the splendor of his coming” (verse 8). Evil is restrained right now; once the Church Age ends, the hindrance to evil will be removed, and the rebellion will seem to be winning; however, the ultimate doom of evil is sure.