For you yourselves know, brethren, that our coming to you was not in vain,  but after we had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition.  For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit;  but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts.  For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed--God is witness--  nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority.  But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children.  Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.  For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-9 NASB
The Pre-Trib View
Paul indicates in this passage that someone is witholding the "mystery of iniquity." Once this person moves "out of the way," the Antichrist will be revealed. Pre-tribulationists claim the Holy Spirit is the restrainer. His influence, exercised through the "Church," keeps the revelation of Antichrist and his demonic kingdom in check. They believe the Holy Spirit, along with the Church will be removed before the Antichrist can be revealed.
Pre-tribbers assume several things not stated by Paul. The passage does not say who the restrainer is. Pre-tribbers assume it is the Holy Spirit. It does not say where the restrainer goes when he is "taken out of the way." Pre- tribbers assume He goes to heaven. It is assumed that the "Church" will also go to heaven because she is indwelled by the Spirit.
The pre-trib reasoning depends upon a positive identification of the restrainer as the Holy Spirit. What is the basis for concluding that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit? According to Scofield, the process of elimination requires this view. He says the Holy Spirit is the only one who could do the job. Since the restraining influence has been at work from the time of the Apostles to the present, the restrainer must be eternal and supernatural. It is said that the Holy Spirit is the only one who could fit this criteria.
If the Holy Spirit leaves earth at the beginning of the tribulation, how could the multitudes be saved in the tribulation? No one can be saved apart from the drawing and convicting influence of the Spirit of God. Also, how could 144,000 Jews evangelize the world in seven years, without the power and presence of the Spirit, when the "Church" has been unsuccessful in nearly two thousand years with the Holy Spirit? The Word of God clearly teaches in Mark 13:9-11, that Christians in the tribulation will be empowered by the Holy Spirit! And that the Spirit will be indwelling them.
If we clear away all the assumptions and speculation, these verses say only that someone is withholding the revelation of the Antichrist. When the restrainer moves "out of the way" (of the "mystery of iniquity"), the Antichrist will be revealed. The restrainer is not identified in this passage, nor is there any indication that the restrainer will go to heaven at this time. Scofield is not correct in claiming that only the Holy Spirit can fit the criteria established in this passage.
The earliest known interpretation of Paul's "restrainer" seems to have been the Roman Empire. This was the view of Tertullian, a late second century Latin writer. Some have also claimed that Irenaeus (mid 2nd cent.) and Hippolytus (late 2nd cent.) also taught this. But, a close examination of their writings indicates that while they thought Rome must fall first, they derived this idea from Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the great image, not from Paul's discussion of the restrainer. They understood the legs of iron as being the Roman Empire. Since the ten toes represented the 10 kings that give their authority to the Beast, they concluded that the Roman Empire would dissolve into ten kingdoms, after which the Antichrist would arise. This is not the same as Rome being what restrains the appearance of Antichrist. After Constantine made Christianity a state sponsored religion in the fourth century, writers commonly held that Rome was the restrainer.
Others have understood this to refer to human government in general. Since "the powers that be are ordained of God," human laws are seen as keeping this wicked force in check.
Why not the Holy Spirit, Rome, or Human Government?
Before we answer this question, lets look at all of the requirements of the passage in question. Then we will compare the candidates mentioned above to see if they fit the criteria established in this passage.
Criterion #1. The restrainer is spoken of in the neuter gender in verse 6, "what is restraining." In verse 7, the restrainer is referred to using the singular masculine personal pronoun, "He who now restrains." The first criterion is that the restrainer is properly spoken of both in the neuter gender and the masculine (singular) gender. The restrainer is both an "it" and a "he."
Criterion #2. According to verse 7 the "mystery of iniquity" was already working in the first century. Since Paul spoke of the restraining in the present tense, and projected this into the future until the Antichrist is revealed, we can deduce that the restrainer has been active for at least 2000 years. Therefore, the restrainer must be a being that has lived for at least this period of time.
Criterion #3. The restrainer is hindering what Paul calls the "mystery of iniquity" and not the "Man of Sin" himself. Obviously, the "Man of Sin" (Antichrist) was not alive in the first century. The gist of Paul's statement indicates that the "mystery of iniquity" is some kind of demonic force, a "spiritual" power that seeks to bring about the revelation of the Man of Sin. John adds some light for us in the following passage.
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God,
3 and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. (I John 4:1-3 NKJV)
Notice the similarity to Paul's statement. John says they knew that the "spirit of Antichrist" was coming. He informs them that this "spirit" was already working at the time. Our third criterion is the restrainer seems to be able to deal directly with spiritual powers on a spiritual plane, rather than in the physical realm. Therefore it is most likely that the restrainer is a spiritual being since he is restraining a spiritual being.
Criterion #4. The restrainer must be more powerful than the one he is restraining, or have greater authority. Otherwise, how could he be successful in restraining for at least 2000 years?
Criterion #5. The Greek word for "restrain" or "withold" in this passage means to physically grab and hold down. The restrainer deals directly in hand to hand combat with the demonic forces.
Of the previously mentioned candidates for "restrainer," Rome fails the endurance test, since Rome fell many centuries ago. The Man of Sin is still not on the scene. Neither did Rome have the ability to deal directly with demonic powers, and could not deal in close combat with such forces. It also fails the masculine singular pronoun criterion. And whether Rome was more powerful that demonic powers is highly doubtful.
Human government may have continued for the required time, but, like Rome, fails to fit the masculine singular personal pronoun (he). Like Rome, it also fails in the ability to deal on a spiritual plane, and with demonic powers directly. Furthermore, human government will continue in the tribulation, and laws will continue to be enforced. If human government were the restrainer, Paul's words would imply that human government would come to an end before the Man of Sin is revealed. We know that is not true according to Revelation and Daniel. Also, like Rome, human government seems to fail to have sufficient power to keep demonic forces in check, even if it could operate in that realm somehow.
The Holy Spirit fits most of the criteria, certainly being able to deal with demonic forces on a spiritual plane, and having the necessary power. The Holy Spirit is eternal, so He has no difficulty with the long time element. However, the Holy Spirit is not typically spoken of in the neuter gender (WHAT is restraining). Nor is the Holy Spirit typically pictured as directly restraining evil in Scripture, or hands-on wrestling directly with the demonic powers. Yes, the Spirit does play a counter-force role to Satan according to John, ("greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world"). But, this is in reference to the Spirit's influence on US, giving us the ability to overcome the adversary in our personal lives. While the Holy Spirit's presence may indirectly hinder the activity of demonic powers, Paul seems to be painting a picture of more direct hands-on intervention with the powers of darkness.
The Restrainer is Michael and His Armies of Angels
During the reign of Cyrus, King of Persia, an angel appeared to Daniel to reveal the future to him. He informed Daniel that he had been delayed twenty-one days because of a struggle with the "prince of Persia", [Dan. 10:10-13]. Then he said he must return to the struggle with the "prince of Persia," and afterward he must wrestle with the "prince of Greece."
12 Then said he unto me, Fear not, Daniel: for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come for thy words.
13 But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days: but, lo, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me; and I remained there with the kings of Persia.
14 Now I am come to make thee understand what shall befall thy people in the latter days: for yet the vision is for many days. ...
20 Then said he, Knowest thou wherefore I come unto thee? and now will I return to fight with the prince of Persia: and when I am gone forth, lo, the prince of Grecia shall come.
21 But I will shew thee that which is noted in the scripture of truth: and there is none that holdeth with me in these things, but Michael your prince. (Dan 10:12-14,20-21 KJV)
Was the angel referring to the human rulers of Persia and Greece? (Persia was the supreme world power at the time of Daniel's vision). But, that seems hardly likely. How could a human ruler or king fight with an angel, or hold back an angel from coming to Daniel? Besides, the same angel in Dan. 11:1 said he stood to confirm and strengthen the first Medo-Persian King (Darius) from the very first year of the Persian Empire. This angel was helping the human Persian king, and at the same time was wrestling against the "prince of Persia." I think it is fair to conclude that the "prince of Persia" was a demonic spirit that sought to turn the kingdom of Persia to do its dark bidding. And this angel had been asigned to restrain it.
Also, notice that the angel said he was returning to the fight with the "prince of Persia" after he left Daniel. After that, the "prince of Grecia" would come. If we follow the succession of Kingdoms in Daniel, we see that the Greeks were to come after the Persians, followed by the Romans. Then the Antichrist would arise out of the ten kingdoms that replaced Rome.
It is apparent that the angel was fighting with a series of demonic powers that sought to influence these successive kingdoms for evil. If there was a "prince of Persia" during the time the Persians ruled the known world, followed by a "prince of Greece" when Alexander the Great came to power and conquerored the Persians, it is safe to assume that there would be a "prince of Rome" also. And that the angel would be engaged in the struggle with that demonic force as well. But, notice what this angel said to Daniel about Michael.
"But I will show thee that which is noted in the scripture of truth: and there is none that holdeth with me in these things, but Michael your Prince." The expression "Michael your Prince" is in reference to Israel's Prince. Earlier in verse 14, the same angel said to Daniel, "I am come to make thee understand what shall befall thy people (Israel) in the latter days..."
So, "Michael your Prince" is most definitely Israel's Prince. The word "holdeth" means to hold down, or to restrain. Earlier, the angel said that Michael had to come and help him while wrestling with the "prince of Persia" (vs. 13). Michael seems to be superior to this angel at least in strength, and probably in rank. From the angel's words in this passage we can conclude that angels, and Michael in particular, are engaged in restraining demonic powers that seek to influence and control human government for evil purposes. Since at least two successive "princes" are named (Persia and Greece) in the major outline of the succession of kingdoms leading to the Antichrist, we can conclude that this restraining activity was ongoing over these successive kingdoms. Michael is definitely identified as the restrainer here.
The same angel continued his conversation with Daniel through chapter 11, revealing many details about the world kingdoms from Daniel's time until the final kingdom of the Antichrist. He concluded by again referring to Michael in connection with the coming tribulation.
1 And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. (Daniel 12:1 KJV)
It is within the context, of angelic restraining of these successive demonic powers that sought to control the series of world empires leading to the Antichrist, that we find that Michael will "stand up" and the time of trouble will begin. It is Michael and his forces who have been "HOLDING" at bay the demonic spirits which attempt to control the world empires. We already saw that Michael was named as Israel's "prince." And here we see the same thing stated. Michael stands for Daniel's people. That is, Michael is Israel's defender. Michael will "stand up" and the time of trouble will begin. What is meant by Michael's standing up? The Hebrew word could mean "stand still" (that is to cease his restraining activity). But, given the fact that the same word is used in reference to his "standing" for Israel, it seems to imply that Michael will take a defensive posture regarding Israel at the time great tribulation begins. Apparently, Michael will cease his offensive role as restrainer of the demonic "princes" and focus on a purely defensive role as Israel's protector in the tribulation.
In Revelation 12 we have more insight regarding Michael's activity at this time.
7 And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,
8 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
10 And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.
11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
12 Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.
13 And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child.
14 And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.
15 And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood.
16 And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.
17 And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
( Rev 12:7-17 KJV)
No doubt this passage was meant to bring to mind Daniel 12:1. The timing of Daniel's "standing up" is at the beginning of the "time of trouble." Jesus referred to this verse in Matt. 24:21, calling it "great tribulation" following the "abomination of desolation" (vs. 15). And here in Rev. 12 we see that the period of Israel's protection in the wilderness is 1260 days. Both passages then are parallel. Michael's "standing up" occurs at the same time as the "war in heaven," the mid-point of the 70th week.
When we examine Paul's words in 2 Thess. 2, we see that he too referred to precisely the same time, describing the "abomination of desolation" as the Man of Sin taking his seat in the Temple claiming to be God. This is how he will be "revealed" once the restrainer moves "out of the way" of the "mystery of iniquity."
The word "withhold" or "restrain" (letteth - KJV) in 2 Thes. 2:6-8 are translated from the Greek word "katecho," literally; "to grasp and hold down." The restrainer is "holding down" the "mystery of iniquity." At the time Michael and His angels throw Satan and his demons down to the earth, and Michael takes a defensive stand for Israel's remnant "in the wilderness," the restraint will be removed from the "mystery of iniquity," allowing the Beast to emerge unrestrained on the scene. The time of trouble begins with his unrestrained "abomination of desolation." Jesus twice quoted from this vision of Daniel in His Olivet Discourse, connecting the Antichrist to the final king in Daniel's vision, [cf. Dan. 11:31 & Matt. 24:15], and identifying the "time of trouble" with the "great tribulation," [cf. Dan. 12:1 & Matt. 24:21]. Since Paul's remarks about the Man of Sin sitting in the Temple parallel Jesus mention of the "abomination of desolation" spoken of by Daniel the prophet, it is very likely that Paul had Michael in mind when he spoke of the "restrainer."
Michael and his army of angels fit all of the criteria. Regarding the grammatical concerns, the angelic army is neuter, and Michael their commander is singular masculine. Michael and his angels have been around for over 2000 years, so they fit the time frame requirement. Michael and his angels are the perfect candidate to deal directly with spiritual entities, since they are spiritual beings. Michael is clearly seen in Scripture as the counter force to Satan, the one who contends directly with the Devil [Jude 1:9]. And Michael and his army of angels are more powerful than Satan and his demons, as illustrated by their winning the "war in heaven," and casting Satan and his demons down to the earth.
Michael & his army
Active 2000+ years
While we may not be able to prove with absolute certainty that the restrainer is Michael and his angels, they are the best fit by far. We also have other passages, like Daniel 10, that actually say Michael is engaged in this type of activity. No similar passages can be found for the role of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Michael is by far the best choice. And in my opinion, the only possible choice.
If Michael is the restrainer, the whole pre-trib argument from 2 Thessalonians 2 collapses. Not only does the passage say nothing of the restrainer going to heaven, but there is no reason to suppose that the Holy Spirit or the Church is even in view. Finally, IF Paul was refering to the Holy Spirit, and implying that the Church would be taken to heaven before the Antichrist is revealed, he would be directly contradicting what he had just written in verses 1-3. There he said that "our gathering together unto Him" will not occur until AFTER the apostasy and the revelation of the Man of Sin.