Acute pancreatitis (AP), an acute inflammatory disorder of the exocrine pancreas, is one of the most common gastrointestinal diseases encountered in emergency departments with no specific treatments. Laboratory-based research has formed the cornerstone of endeavours to decipher the pathophysiology of AP, because of the limitations of such study in human beings. While this has provided us with substantial understanding, we cannot answer several pressing questions. These are: (a) Why is it that only a minority of individuals with gallstones, or who drink alcohol excessively, or are exposed to other causative factors develop AP? (b) Why do only some develop more severe manifestations of AP with necrosis and/or organ failure? (c) Why have we been unable to find an effective therapeutic for AP? This manuscript provides a state-of-the-art review of our current understanding of the pathophysiology of AP providing insights into the unanswered clinical questions. We describe multiple protective factors operating in most people, and multiple stressors that in a minority induce AP, independently or together, via amplification loops. We present testable hypotheses aimed at halting progression of severity for the development of effective treatments for this common unpredictable disease.