Is 2 Thessalonians 2:7 the Rapture?
Is there a rapture of the Church in the end-times according to the Bible – a great snatching up of believers into the heavens to meet the Lord as he descends? Yes, of course there is. The big debate is when exactly in the end-times this occurs. Is it at the beginning, middle, or end of the reign of the antichrist?
Those holding to a pre-tribulation rapture often quote 2 Thessalonians 2:5-8, and particularly verse 7, “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 (NIV),” as indicating that the Holy Spirit will be taken away from the earth before the tribulation. From that they argue that since the Holy Spirit is present in the Church (the body of Christ), the Holy Spirit can not be taken from the earth unless the body of Christ is also. That is a sound chain of reasoning, but there is no proof here that these verses in 2 Thessalonians are referring to the Holy Spirit.
This verse has no personal pronoun in the original. The words “one” and “he” used here are taken from the form of the word κατέχω (katechō) in vs. 7. This same word in the exact same form – κατέχω – is seen in vs. 6 being translated as an “it” and the word “what” is used to translate it: “And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time (NIV).” It says, “what is holding him back,” not, “who is holding him back.”
So to be consistent with verse 6, since κατέχω can be translated as “he” or “it”, verse 7 could be translated, “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but that which now holds it back will continue to do so till it is taken out of the way.” So while people like to say (and it’s true), the Holy Spirit is a person, not a thing, the grammar in verses 6 and 7 does not prove that they refer to the Holy Spirit being removed. It does not prove that the Holy Spirit is removed from earth before the reign of the antichrist. If the verses themselves don’t prove it, perhaps the context does?
Verse 6 indicates for us what context to look at. It says, “Now you know what is holding him back.” The verse is explicitly referring to this holding back power; and by saying, “now you know” it is pointing to the preceding verses as having described it. We can read those verses to see what it is that restrains the antichrist and in what sense it is removed allowing antichrist to rise to power and influence.
What the previous verses (1-5) say is that the Day of the Lord will not come “until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction (2 Thess. 2:3 NIV).” It is the “rebellion” which reveals the man of sin, the antichrist. So we should ask, in what way is rebellion a removal of a restraint? Actually the answer is straightforward. “Rebellion” is translated from the word ἀποστασία (apostasia). The rebellion is “the great apostasy” of the end times that provides the conditions for the rise of “the man of lawlessness”. Apostasy does involve the removal of a restraining influence. It precisely removes faithfulness to the law of God and would be just what opens the door for the spiritual lawlessness of the lawless one.
And yes, apostasy does involve the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit from believers. But apostasy does not occur in an instant. It is the end condition of a long struggle within and among believers as God through the Holy Spirit strives with them over their desire for sin. Apostasy occurs when the Holy Spirit finally withdraws his restraining influence and lets them have their way. Sadly such withdrawal does not follow a struggle by the believers to overcome their sins, but it follows a struggle by church members to live in their sins and make it seem by perversion of Christian doctrine that God approves. In the case of apostasy, God has finally given up His efforts to bring about repentance and has withdrawn the Holy Spirit from them. It is not that the Holy Spirit is gone, but that He withdraws from the struggle and allows the person, or church, to go his/their own way. And it is not the result of some snatching away, but is the end result of a prolonged process. It could be argued, one supposes, that when God gives the end-times church over to the great apostasy He will completely remove the Holy Spirit from the earth and will rapture the true believers. But the verses do not require that interpretation.
It can be reasoned from the above that the “removal” of the Holy Spirit referred to in these passages is the great apostasy of the end-time wherein He has withdrawn Himself from the mainstream churches. Typically when a church or a denomination has apostasized, that does not mean that there are no true believers in it. It means that the leadership has left the faith and now teaches heresy, and the main body of the flock has followed along. The true believers have been marginalized. It may even mean that the true believers have had to flee and go into exile or hiding. It is not necessary that this be the catching up (rapture) of believers and the Holy Spirit from the earth into heaven.
But while it is not necessary, it does not rule it out entirely, either. So does the passage actually mean there will be a rapture that removes the true believers and thus the Holy Spirit from the earth before the man of sin rises to power? Fortunately, we can look elsewhere for clarification.
The scriptures teach in various places that the man of sin will declare himself to be God, that he will have an image of himself set up, and that he will require all men to worship him and it and receive a mark showing their fealty to him. Revelation 20:4 indicates that there will be those who are beheaded during this time for their refusal of these demands and for their witness to the deity of Jesus Christ and the Word of God. Such a stand and such a testimony is only possible through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit in a born again believer. It is not possible for this to happen if the Holy Spirit has been removed from earth. Since these events are subsequent to the withdrawal of the restraining force was preventing the rise of this man of sin in the first place, this means that the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit in the great apostasy we have discussed above is not likely a reference to the rapture and the catching away of the Church. It is members of the true Church that are being beheaded.
Further evidence is found in Revelation chapter 11 where the ministry of the two witnesses is described. These two men clearly have a prophetic ministry and the Holy Spirit is all over them. This ministry provides God’s last call to mankind to repent of their sins and turn to Him. Through them the Holy Spirit is calling for repentance, and it is the Holy Spirit working in men’s hearts that will bring hearers to repentance. Repentance is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. How can any of this be happening if the Holy Spirit has been removed? Is the prophetic ministry of the Two Witnesses false? Absolutely not. Will their ministry bear no fruit and not one man step forward? Unlikely. So again, it does not look as though a rapture that removes the whole Church and the Holy Spirit has yet occurred during the reign of the antichrist.
For more on the Two Witnesses, visit The Two Witnesses of Revelation
The Orthodox Church has traditionally taught that the restraining force referred to in 2 Thessalonians is the Holy Spirit working through the Christian monarch or emperor in the same fashion as an Old Testament king anointed by God to rule His people and vanquish His enemies. Here is an excellent article on that.
The Traditional Orthodox would say that when the Christian monarch, Tzar Nicholas II, fell and the Soviets took power (along with the replacement of monarchies around the world by various democracies and/or thugs) this fulfilled the above passages and the restraining power was removed. History is on their side on that. Whether or not we agree with their theological position, the Christianizing influence of the “Constantinopolitan period of the existence of the Church of Christ” ended with the assassination of Tzar Nicholas and his family and the rise of world communism and the secularisation of the 20th century.