The C. elegans gene ced-4 is essential for programmed cell death. We report that ced-4 encodes two transcripts and that whereas the major transcript can cause programmed cell death, the minor transcript can act oppositely and prevent programmed cell death, thus defining a novel class of cell death inhibitors. That ced-4 has both cell-killing and cell-protective functions is consistent with previous genetic studies. Our results suggest that the dual protective and killer functions of the C. elegans bcl-2-like gene ced-9 are mediated by inhibition of the killer and protective ced-4 functions, respectively. We propose that a balance between opposing ced-4 functions influences the decision of a cell to live or to die by programmed cell death and that both ced-9 and ced-4 protective functions are required to prevent programmed cell death.