Epithelial injury is a critical event in the development of acute lung injury, but the mechanisms that cause death of the alveolar epithelium are not completely understood. Epithelial death occurs by necrosis and apoptosis; more information is needed about the balance between these two types of cell death in the lungs. Direct epithelial necrosis probably occurs in response to bacterial exotoxins and over-distension of alveolar units by mechanical ventilation. Apoptosis is a regulated form of cell death that is mediated by membrane death receptors and direct mitochondrial injury. Apoptosis pathways are activated in the lungs of patients with acute lung injury, in part by activation of the membrane Fas death receptor by soluble Fas ligand (sFasL), which accumulates in biologically active form at the onset of lung injury. Accumulating evidence in humans and experimental models links sFasL and Fas pathway with lung epithelial injury and fibrosis. New strategies to inhibit Fas-mediated epithelial apoptosis need to be developed in order to develop new ways to preserve epithelial function in patients who develop acute lung injury.