During their lifetime, cells encounter many life or death situations that challenge their very own existence. Their survival depends on the interplay within a complex yet precisely orchestrated network of proteins. The Rel/NF-kappaB signaling pathway and the transcription factors that it activates have emerged as critical regulators of the apoptotic response. These proteins are best known for the key roles that they play in normal immune and inflammatory responses, but they are also implicated in the control of cell proliferation, differentiation, apoptosis and oncogenesis. In recent years, there has been remarkable progress in understanding the pathways that activate the Rel/NF-kappaB factors and their role in the cell's decision to either fight or surrender to apoptotic challenge. Whereas NF-kappaB is most commonly involved in suppressing apoptosis by transactivating the expression of antiapoptotic genes, it can promote programmed cell death in response to certain death-inducing signals and in certain cell types. This review surveys our current understanding of the role of NF-kappaB in the apoptotic response and focuses on many developments since this topic was last reviewed in Oncogene 4 years ago. These recent findings shed new light on the activity of NF-kappaB as a critical regulator of apoptosis in the immune, hepatic, epidermal and nervous systems, on the mechanisms through which it operates and on its role in tissue development, homoeostasis and cancer.