Why Newton Believed a Comet Caused Noah’s Flood

In the 17th century, scientists used physics to explain the miracles described in the Bible. A book purporting to prove that a comet caused Noah’s Flood became a best-seller. Five editions were published by 1737, and it was translated into German.

by Mark Strauss at National Geographic: The Great Comet of 1680 was not a portend of doom but a scientific blessing. Sir Isaac Newton observed the comet, and his calculations of its trajectory confirmed his universal theory of gravitation. The astronomer Edmund Halley also studied the comet. Newton’s equations helped him determine the orbits of 24 other comets and predict when they would reappear in the night sky.

The comet of 1680 would likewise inspire one of Newton’s closest colleagues and friends: the mathematician William Whiston, whose intricate calculations would bring him fame in Europe.

This comet, he declared, had passed close to Earth thousands of years ago—so close, in fact, that the comet had doused our world with water from its tail and exerted enough gravitational force to pull forth oceans from beneath our planet’s crust.

In short, Whiston concluded, the same comet seen by incredulous sky-watchers in the 17th century also unleashed the epic rainfall and great Flood that had cleansed the Earth of sinners in Biblical times.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Newton.

Today, Whiston is not as well-known as his illustrious contemporaries. Still, he had an impressive resume. He succeeded Newton as the prestigious Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, and he lobbied for passage of the Longitude Act in 1714, which revolutionized navigation.

Like many of his peers, he was also a theologian—and he was determined to reconcile apparent contradictions between mathematical laws and Biblical scripture.

“What set Whiston and Newton apart from modern scientists is their assumption that the Bible was literally true, and that God’s ‘book of nature’ could be used to understand God’s other book, the Bible,” says James Force, a professor retired from the University of Kentucky’s philosophy department who has written extensively about the two scientists.

“Today, we tend to keep science and religion in strictly segregated boxes. Not so Newton and Whiston.”

When Newton published his seminal work, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, he did more than lay the foundation for modern physics—he also helped usher in the concept of a mechanistic universe.

According to this thinking, God didn’t trouble himself with the mundane task of pushing the planets along in their orbits around the sun. Rather, the Almighty had created physical laws, such as gravity, that governed the operations of the universe. And those laws persisted as a direct result of God’s will. We live in a clockwork cosmos, proponents argued, that was designed, built, set in motion, and sustained by the “Divine Architect.”

But some noted thinkers saw a contradiction in this view. If God had established infallible natural laws, why were there accounts in the Bible that violated these very same rules?

The British theologian Thomas Burnet made this case in his best-selling treatise, Sacred Theory of the Earth. He calculated, for instance, that all the water on Earth—even with an additional forty days and nights of rain—could not account for the Great Flood.

As such, Burnet argued, there must be another scientific explanation for the great Deluge and the story, as told in scripture, could not be taken literally…

More here.