I've received a text that says:

"The chariots storm through the streets, rushing back and forth through the squares. They look like flaming torches; they dart about like lightning." - Nahum 2:4

After studying Daniel 12:4 and Nahum 2:4, Newton made a prediction based on these verses saying:

"Man will some day be able to travel at the tremendous speed of 40 miles an hour."

Voltaire, the French humanist and atheist, replied:

"See what a fool Christianity makes of an otherwise brilliant man, such as Sir Isaac Newton! Doesn't he know that if man traveled 40 miles an hour, he would suffocate and his heart would stop?"

Alleged Font: Sunday School Times

The Sermon Illustrator site repeats this text, attributing it to:

Peter Kennedy, Copyright 2001, Devotional E-Mail, DEVOTIONS IN THE MINOR PROPHETS

But in The Newton Project Website I couldn't find anything like this. How much of this claim is trustable?

  • 3
    I found another appearance at sermonillustrator.org/illustrator/sermon3b/…, credited to "Peter Kennedy, Devotional Email, 2001". The source cited is Newton's Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John. The text is at Project Gutenberg but initial searches are not finding the claimed passage. – Nate Eldredge Jun 4 at 3:40
  • 6
    A modern racehorse can gallop at over 40 mph with a rider. Presumably the horses of Newton and Voltaire's time were somewhat slower, but it's not as if 40 mph was some utterly ludicrous and unimaginable speed in the 18th century. – Pont Jun 4 at 7:22
  • 5
    Why isn't the question about Voltaire's part? – DevSolar Jun 4 at 8:36
  • 3
    Regarding Voltaire's quote... Were people of that time able to measure wind speed? Surely it would have been obvious that traveling at 40 mph through the air would not suffocate a person if we can breath during windstorms. – James Jun 4 at 10:58
  • 5
    The earliest instance found on Google Books and the Internet Archive for the quote attributed to Voltaire is in Harry Ironside's The Lamp of Prophecy: Or, Signs of the Times (1940), and the earliest for that attributed to Newton is Evangel magazine (1968). Neither work gives any citation. I suspect these "quotes" are modern inventions. – Gareth Rees Jun 4 at 11:45

The fact that Newton studied the bible and tried quite 'advanced' exegesis is well known. That he is said to have written this is quite strange:

Traveling at 40 Miles an Hour

"The chariots storm through the streets, rushing back and forth through the squares. They look like flaming torches; they dart about like lightning." - Nahum 2:4

Isaac Newton was born in 1642 in Lincolnshire, England. He entered Cambridge University in 1661. He was elected a Fellow of Trinity College in 1667 and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669. A brilliant mathematician and physicist, Newton is best remembered for his theory of universal gravitation.

In later life, Newton abandoned math and physics and became a student of the Bible.

In his "Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John", that were posthumously published, Newton's aim was to show that the prophecies of the Old and New Testaments had so far been fulfilled.

After studying Daniel 12:4 and Nahum 2:4, Newton made a prediction based on these verses saying: "Man will some day be able to travel at the tremendous speed of 40 miles an hour."

Voltaire, the French humanist and atheist, replied: "See what a fool Christianity makes of an otherwise brilliant man, such as Sir Isaac Newton! Doesn't he know that if man traveled 40 miles an hour, he would suffocate and his heart would stop?"

Though Newton couldn't explain how man would travel so fast and he had no concept of the modern automobile, he knew God's Word could be trusted.

We cannot understand everything in God's Word. But we can trust everything in it because the Lord has said it. Is there portion of scripture you are wrestling with? Today in prayer, come to Christ's throne of grace and give thanks to the Lord that you can trust His Word.

"Only the supernatural mind can have prior knowledge to the natural mind. If then the Bible has foreknowledge, historical and scientific, beyond the permutation of chance it truly bears the fingerprint of God." - G.B. Hardy

God's Word: "But you, Daniel, close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge." - Daniel 12:4

Looking at the verses in KJV:

Daniel 12 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.
2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
3 And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.
4 But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.

And again in KJV:

Nahum 2 He that dasheth in pieces is come up before thy face: keep the munition, watch the way, make thy loins strong, fortify thy power mightily.
2 For the Lord hath turned away the excellency of Jacob, as the excellency of Israel: for the emptiers have emptied them out, and marred their vine branches.
3 The shield of his mighty men is made red, the valiant men are in scarlet: the chariots shall be with flaming torches in the day of his preparation, and the fir trees shall be terribly shaken.
4 The chariots shall rage in the streets, they shall justle one against another in the broad ways: they shall seem like torches, they shall run like the lightnings.
5 He shall recount his worthies: they shall stumble in their walk; they shall make haste to the wall thereof, and the defence shall be prepared.

Seems strange for Nahum, but ridiculous for Daniel?

Whether one rummages through The Newton Project or Newton Papers, this "prophecy" seems not only absent, it seems also quite out of place to begin with.

But the book Sermon Illustrator alludes to is now public domain:

Sir Isaac Newton's Daniel and the Apocalypse; with an introductory study of the nature and the cause of unbelief, of miracles and prophecy

Almost naturally, that quote is not in there. Newton did study Dan 12,4 and wrote about it.

But what Newton wrote about this makes the claim investigated look rather strange?

Newton believed that the perfection of the understanding involved the relentless study of sacred texts and the rational examination of the cosmos. His preface to his early treatise on the Apocalypse was saturated with scriptural references to the understanding, for he believed that God had given his people prophesies so that they might be understood in the latter times. Daniel had foretold (12:4, 9-10) that at the end of time, the wise, and not the wicked, would understand, and from this Newton inferred that true understanding could only be achieved by the pure of heart who had attained real wisdom. The godly, he said, should engage in the constant study of Scripture in order to fully understand their faith, so that they might choose and profess that religion they judged to be the most true. Acquiring a mature and more perfect understanding through constant reading and meditation would add assurance and vigour to faith.This work was a necessary but not sufficient condition for grasping core truths, since human wisdom was ineffective without God’s help. As Newton put it, it was difficult for the wise to understand the truths of religion, given that they were so “prepossest” with their own imaginations and too engrossed with worldly designs. Ultimately, true understanding of prophecy was a gift of God; if the wise were to understand, they had to purify themselves from sin before they could accept God’s offer.

In a unique excursus on the nature of sin, Newton claimed that a sinner did evil not because he could not do what he wished, but because he would not do what he could. He was not condemned to sin by “the blind impuls of his nature” and in principle, he could freely choose not to do evil. However, the extent to which any man could do this was dependent on the degree to which he had improved his understanding. For Newton, the intellect was central to the life of a godly man, because only by perfecting it could he acquire a will that was sufficiently free to choose good over evil. He explicitly equated evil with folly, and he noted that the latter was always avoided by having a perfect understanding.The will was most free where the understanding was most perfect, and so its sincere and painstaking cultivation was the highest Christian duty. Christ himself had admitted that he could have sinned by not fulfilling the prophesies relating to him, but the fact he had not sinned, Newton concluded, was due to his perfect understanding guiding his actions. Newton’s hymn to the will reached its zenith in his early text “De Gravitatione” and, in particular, in the General Scholium, where the intelligent designs of God were held to be the result of his supreme will.
–– Rob Iliffe: "Priest Of Nature. The Religious Worlds Of Isaac Newton", Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2017. (p400)

As ever so often, suspicious quote without proper citation, this seems quite the late invention.

The oldest form of this I could locate increases the speed to 50 miles in this 1846 pamphlet: The Churchman's Monthly Penny Magazine and Guide to Christian Truth, Volume 1

This "50 miles an hour" seems to be the more common form of this invented quote, but it seems that the internet can locate variants of this only for English speaking occurrences.

Most interesting of all and worthy of our attention is the prediction ascribed to the great philosopher, Sir Isaac Newton, who is cited by Dr. C. F. Deems, in his Christian Thought for December, 1887, as saying that if the prophecies of Daniel and John were true, " it would be necessary that a new mode of traveling should be invented," and who asserted his belief " That the knowledge of mankind would be so increased before a certain date – or time terminated – namely, one thousand two hundred and sixty years — that they would be able to travel at the rate of fifty miles an hour." When Voltaire heard of Newton's augury, the infidel laughed him to scorn and styled him a "poor dotard," simply because Newton based his calculations on the Bible.
"But," writes Dr. Deems, "if he should get into a railway train, even a sceptic today would have to say, Newton was the philosopher, Voltaire the dotard.' "
It is impossible to conjecture how Sir Isaac was led to advance such a belief, unless we may suppose he drew it from a careful analysis of Dan. 12:4. The great man died in 1727.
–– Daniel T. Taylor: "A Chariot of Fire: The Cars in Prophecy & History, with the Wonders of Rapid Traveling & Significance of the Modern Railway System... A Token of the Nearing End of the Age", Scriptural publication society, 1888. (gBooks)

Note that this switches the Nahum part to John, as would be more proper for the book about the apocalypse by Newton. The logical jump from end of the world, which indeed Newton calculated to such a year, to 'new mode of transport is therefore necessarily invented' is quite striking. Although in this version of the text the actual speed is quite under emphasised.

Looking at the publication history of Newton adds another piece of circumstantial evidence.

He published none of his writings on the Bible during his lifetime. But after his death four items appeared in print, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728), the Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel. and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733), an essay on the sacred cubit of the Hebrews (1737), and two letters written to John Locke concerning doubts about the textual basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity. (A third letter to Locke on this subject was only published in 1961.) In addition to the material that has been published in the two and one-half centuries since Newton's death, an enormous amount of unpublished manuscript writings are still unpublished. They are in libraries from California to Jerusalem. The largest amount of the unpublished work is in the Yahuda collection at the National and University Library of Israel.
–– James E. Force & Richard Henry Popkin: "Essays on the Context, Nature, and Influence of Isaac Newton’s Theology", Springer Science & Business Media, 1990. p. 103.

Turning that around, the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire also seems to lack the ridicule about Newton.

The biography by Ian Davidson: "Voltaire: A Life", Pegasus, 2010 (gBooks) is equally devoid of this claim. On the contrary, we only see Voltaire's praise for Newton.

  • What I find especially strange is the supposed need for Newton to invoke the Bible to make the prediction that man would one day travel 40 miles per hour. Newton's laws of motion have no problem with people moving at high velocity, the only issue is how you choose to reach that velocity. – JMac Jun 4 at 17:04
  • @JMac Not only that, Nahum alone (of course, just that one verse, wholly out of context) is a very fine prediction, and any one seeing a burning Tesla battery agrees? ;) – LangLangC Jun 4 at 17:16
  • I understand it's a little late, which is why I won't add this as an answer, but I would be very surprised to find that 40 miles per hour would be considered impossible when the widely available transportation method of horse riding is capable of up to 55 miles per hour in short bursts. – Rugnir Jun 20 at 12:25

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .