- Emma Newling
States that matter
Updated: Jan 16
There are states of matter for scientists,
and matters of State for politicians,
but states that matter
is a matter for all,
not simply for theoreticians!
If you'd like an overview of the purpose of this series, check out Series Start: Curriculum Connections.
Knowledge domain: Science
Topic: States of Matter
Matter: the ‘stuff’ of creation. Turns out it can come in four different states: gas, liquid, solid and plasma (I only remember three from my science lessons). But more importantly, matter matters no matter what state it’s in!
The obvious theological connection for matter is the nature and value of creation. But because it’s obvious, I encourage you not to go there! Instead, why not spend some time exploring the incarnation or the promised new creation? These doctrines are likely to be less familiar to all your students (Christian or not) and they offer an opportunity for imaginations to be captivated by the glory of God. So, in case you are not confident with these two ideas here is a very short summary.
We celebrate the wonder of the incarnation at Christmas. Jesus, God the Son, who for eternity past had existed as spirit took on flesh: he entered creation as a man, that is, he bound himself with matter. Consequently, he knows what it is to be human in this world: he knows the comfort of a hug and the pain of a broken body; he understands hunger and the satisfaction of a full stomach; he endured loneliness and betrayal and knew the delights of friendship; we have a record of his tears and, though a man of sorrows, there must surely have been laughter too.
It is because he took on humanity, that he is the perfect sacrifice and high priest for us before his Father (Hebrews 8-10). And he has not lost or given up his humanity either. When Jesus was born, though the Godhead did not change in essence, yet the Son became man for eternity to come. He was resurrected bodily, that is, he is human still. He ascended into heaven bodily (Acts 1). Even now, he lives and reigns at his Father’s right hand as a man: our perfect representative and advocate (1 John 2), the true human (Gen 1, Psalm 8, Philippians 2), the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1, Hebrews 1), who rules over creation. Somewhere around 6BC, the Word became flesh, the Son was clothed in matter … and it matters!
The New Creation
The New Creation is the hope of all of Jesus’ people. There are hints throughout the Bible of what future life with God is like (Isaiah 11, 65 & 66, for example) but it is the culmination of the revelation given to the Apostle John of what is to come. In Revelation 21 & 22, God finally dwells with his people in the new heaven and the new earth, where all the problems and pain of the old age have been dealt with. God’s people will dwell in safety and peace, enjoying true rest. Rather than an ethereal (and boring!) description of this eternal existence, Revelation paints a glorious picture that delights the senses (filled with colour, brilliance and abundance) and embraces diversity in unity:
They will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21: 26-27)
Yet, beyond the specific passages in salvation history that point to the goodness of the New Creation, its material reality is a theological theme from the opening verse of the Bible, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ (Genesis 1:1).
God, who alone possesses immortality, did not decide to create a spirit-only world (though surely spiritual beings are part of his creation) but he created a material universe. Not only did he create matter, he did not destroy it despite our rebellion towards him. Instead, he entered into matter (in the incarnation) in order to redeem that which was made and reconcile the world to himself (Romans 8, Colossians 1). The expression of his kingship included the ‘repair of matter’ in all the healing miracles and the ‘rule of matter’ in Jesus’ miracles where he controlled the elements (turning water into wine, walking on water, calming the storm, feeding the 5000/ 4000). And his bodily resurrection and ascension show us that he has not rid himself of matter into the future (as desired in a Greek philosophical sense and many eastern philosophies), but rather matter will ultimately be transformed and set free from the consequences of sin.
Why does this matter? If you ask your students what they think ‘heaven’ (or their concept of eternal existence) is like, my experience suggests very few of them will see it as something genuinely interesting and appealing, nor will they have a practical concept of what it could be like. What hope is there if you think the future is an ethereal, colourless, ‘floaty’ existence of some idea of perfection? Might be ok for a day or two, but forever? Thankfully, that is not the promise of God: the one who made this universe in all its diversity and intricacy, and then subjected it to frustration and corruption in response to the rebellion of his image bearers (Romans 8) will remake it in glory and freedom. Now that is somewhere I want to be!
So how can we talk about this in our classrooms? Below are a few ideas to get you thinking.
Examples for K-4:
These questions are designed to explore the wonder of the incarnation without using big words.
Debatable question sequence for little ones:
What is your body made of now?
Is that the same for everybody?
Was Jesus made of the same stuff as you? How do you know?
A watch and wonder moment:
I wonder, if Jesus scrapped his knee would it feel like, and bleed like, your knee when you fall over in the playground?
Whether Jesus ever fell over and scrapped his knee as a kid is a separate question we don’t have an answer to! But he certainly bled, and it definitely hurt. Jesus knows how our bodies feel in our distress. What comfort to a little one to know that not only has Jesus made their body so that they can heal but also that Jesus knows what it’s like to hurt! May these ideas shape our prayers when we are leading our little ones to the throne of grace in their time of need.
A big chunk possibility for growing minds:
When Jesus came back to life, what was his body like?
This is a fun one to explore. Check out one of the resurrection accounts at the end of the gospels. Jesus’ body was like ours: he ate to prove he was not a ghost and he invited Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and feet to see that it was really him. (Note: his glorious body was not rid of his wounds, he bears the scars of his love in his resurrected body!) But his body was also not like ours: he could appear in a locked room (his first appearance to the gathered disciples) and disappear from people’s sight (remember the blokes at dinner after their walk to Emmaus). People both recognised him (Mary in the garden) and didn’t recognise him until he revealed himself (again, the blokes walking to Emmaus … they had a big day!). Jesus is the first fruit of the resurrection: as he is, so his people will one day be. Jesus’ bodily resurrection matters because it tells us about ultimate reality. And because matter matters, our bodies matter too.
Examples for Year 5+:
The first question set explores the idea that not everything is understandable by science alone. The later questions explore the continuity of matter into the new creation and attempt to reveal what your students think about their days ahead and then renew their thinking in light of the gospel.
Sequence #1: Opening our fields of knowledge
Can you think of anything that doesn’t fit into one of these states of matter?
What about your mind or your thoughts … if they are not matter what are they?
Beware the question: This is a huge question but you are sightseeing, not excavating! You could go down a long philosophical or psychological path to answer this question (a path that most of us are not qualified to be guides on!) but that’s not the aim.
The aim of the question: The aim is to explore the idea that there are things beyond the material (the stuff of matter) that are real and valuable and are worth knowing. In my experience, many upper primary students (and probably middle school students too) are only comfortable thinking that truth is found scientifically. This is not surprising: such knowledge is concrete and tangible, exciting and personally engaging. In addition, it’s likely to be a significant pillar in their parents' worldview. But it is shutting down their ability to engage with even an idea of God, let alone the personal God who has made himself known. So, without mentioning the gospel (to start with, at least) we need to push the walls of their minds outwards.
Follow up ideas:
What about spirits (like angels) or your soul, what do you think they are?
What do you know about angels?
o Sometimes they appear as spirits or ‘other worldly’ beings (see Isaiah 6 or the heavenly host at Jesus’ birth in Luke 2) but sometimes they take on physical form i.e. matter (check out Genesis 18 and the ‘three men’ who visit Abraham).
o Often we are told that people fall down either in fear or as ‘though dead’ when an angel appears, so that even though we don’t have a description of the messenger (the Greek word for angel just means ‘messenger’) the implication in the narrative is that they are overwhelmingly awesome (in the terrifying sense of the word) because they reflect something of the glory of God from whose presence they have been sent to do his work.
o What might these interactions with heavenly beings teach us about matter and reality?
Sequence #2: Focus is epistemological – how do we know …?
If you think there is nothing beyond the material world (that which can be explored by science), how did you come to this conclusion?
What evidence would you need to change your mind?
Sequence #3: Focus is to explore what students think about ‘eternity’ and their humanity
Assuming heaven exists (it’s a thought experiment, you don’t have to subscribe to the belief to explore it) what do you think people are in heaven?
Most students, if they’ve thought about it, will think they become angels in heaven (thanks to Hollywood). This makes them not only not corporeal but a different being entirely.
Exploring these ideas with your students is an opportunity to highlight that each student is eternally significant. We will be ‘ourselves’ for eternity. God has created each one of us and every ‘I’ will be ‘me’ into eternity. No one ‘becomes an angel’ (and angels are not greater than humans (Hebrews 1)). Humans are God’s image bearers, the cherubim and seraphim are not. Beyond this life, we will still be ourselves – through judgement and into eternity. How might such an understanding change and shape your students’ perception of themselves … and the person who sits next to them? Personal dignity and value does not solely rely on the biblical concept of imagio Dei, they are also shaped by the doctrines of redemption and eschatology.
A follow on is that matter is important to God and this shapes biblical ethics: how we treat each other involves how we relate to each other as whole persons (body & spirit), for example, Romans 13:8-10, and what we do in this life matters to the next.
Sequence #4: Continues with exploring eternity but engages imagination and emotion
What things about this world do you find delightful and interesting now?
If such things are part of God's very good (Genesis 1) but frustrated creation (Romans 8) now, can you imagine life with them perfected?
Every good gift is from God and eternity will be in a creation without the wounds of sin … is that a place you want to be? Would it be worth finding out how to be there, even if such knowledge might raise some confronting ideas?
Resources for Teachers:
If you are after a summary of biblical doctrine, I recommend investing in one or two of the books below:
Packer, J. I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Tyndale House, Cambridge, 2001). Short chapters, useful index, a great starting point. A comprehensive summary of Christian belief. Kindle version is available.
Packer, J. I. Knowing God (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2004) A ‘meaty’ meal for theological growth … many would call this a ‘classic’.
Roberts, Vaughan. God’s Big Picture: Tracing the storyline of the Bible (IVP, Nottingham, 2002). This book traces the kingdom theme through God’s revelation in salvation history. A great way to get an understanding of the over-arching narrative of the Bible, which will also demonstrate how the incarnation and new creation ‘fit’ into God’s plans and purposes. It’s not organised by doctrine (as Packer’s are) but it will grow your understanding of the story.
Morphew, Chris. What happens when we die? (The Good Book Company, UK, 2021). This is in a series of 3 books Chris wrote for 9-12 year olds. All three books are worth a read if you teach this age group but this one has chapters that look at what will life be like when Jesus returns? and what we will be like when Jesus returns?
Petty, Scott. Life After Death (Matthias Media, Sydney, 2015). This book is in the Little Black Books series written for teenagers (age 14 upwards is suggested). Similar in content to What happens when we die? but for an older readership.